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Breast Cancer Study Cites Value of Follow-Up Therapy

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Women with breast cancer are far more likely to survive at least 15 years if their surgery is followed by chemotherapy and hormone therapy. That's the conclusion of a new analysis of more than 194 breast cancer studies.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

A new analysis of breast cancer study shows chemotherapy and hormone therapy can significantly improve survival rates for women who've undergone surgery for breast cancer. Researchers looked at 194 breast cancer studies. They found the benefit of these treatments is modest in the first few years after surgery but increases steadily over time. NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

Women diagnosed with early breast cancer usually decide to have surgery. But then they need to decide whether to add chemotherapy or hormone treatments like tamoxifen. These extra treatments provide some protection against the cancer reappearing within five years. But Sarah Darby of Oxford University says the new analysis shows that the real protection comes much later.

Ms. SARAH DARBY (Oxford University): The size of the effect seems to be bigger at 10 years than at five years and even bigger at 15 years than it was at 10 years. And that's really great news for all women with breast cancer.

HAMILTON: Darby was part of a team that analyzed studies of 145,000 women diagnosed with early breast cancer. The results appear in this week's issue of The Lancet, a British medical journal. Darby's team found that women who got both chemotherapy and hormone treatments cut their risk of dying from breast cancer by 50 percent after 15 years. Darby says the results show that breast cancer isn't like other forms of the disease.

Ms. DARBY: With many cancers, if you get through the first five years, then basically you're through your cancer. But breast cancer is an unusual cancer in that recurrences of the disease can happen after five years, after 10 years, and deaths from the disease can happen 15 years or 20 years after the initial disease.

HAMILTON: The new analysis supports what most cancer doctors already recommend to their patients. Dr. Larry Norton of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York says chemotherapy and hormone treatments make sense. He says they're a bit like the weed killers you use in your garden.

Dr. LARRY NORTON (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center): By giving drugs that go through the bloodstream, go to all parts of the body, we're not only killing the live weed plants; what we're seeing is we're killing the seedlings, we're killing the seeds, we're killing the spores. What we're doing is we're getting rid of little, tiny specks that may eventually turn into cancer. And that's why we're seeing such long-term effects.

HAMILTON: Not every woman with breast cancer is a good candidate for chemotherapy or hormone treatments. But Norton says most patients can get a big payoff if they're willing to endure the risks and discomfort of these treatments, and he says the latest drugs are safer and more effective than the older ones reviewed in this study.

Dr. NORTON: Getting such a profound signal of benefit from the ancient chemotherapy gives us enormous encouragement that what we've developed recently and what we're developing right now is going to have even a bigger impact 15, 20 years from now.

HAMILTON: Norton says the results offer a strong argument for doing more studies that go on for decades, not just a few years. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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