Friday, September 12, 2008

HEALTH NEWS: Study: Breast Cancer Survivors Still At Risk

(previously published here at

New research from a 16-year study indicates that early-stage breast cancer patients who have completed five to 10 years of drug and/or chemotherapy treatment have a one in five - around 20 percent - chance of relapse.

Between 1985 and 2001, oncologists/researchers at the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center examined 2,838 patients with stage I to III breast cancers who had been treated at the center. All were cancer-free five years after initial treatment with surgery or surgery and radiation.

All of the women underwent up to five years of additional treatments with chemotherapy, the anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen or both. After a 28-month follow-up, 215 women developed recurrent cancer.

This incidence rate put the risk at 7 percent for women with stage I breast cancer, 11 percent for stage II, and 13 percent for women with stage III cancer. This relapse rate increased to 20 percent 15 years after first being diagnosed.

"The risk of relapse was still small, but certainly not insignificant," Abenaa M. Brewster, M.D., an oncologist and researcher with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center told WebMD. "I think these numbers are somewhat reassuring, but they also highlight the need for new [therapeutic] options for women who have completed five years of treatment."

Factors associated with the risk of recurrence were tumor grade, hormone receptor status and endocrine therapy.

Forms of treatment available to newly diagnosed patients usually include surgery and radiation therapy (chemotherapy) or surgery and drug therapy.

Up until the year 2000, drug treatment consisted of tamoxifen for both premenopausal and postmenopausal women with estrogen-receptor positive tumors (they respond to hormone treatments). Today, a newer class of drugs called aromatase inhibitors are used.

In the study, 34 ER-negative women had a relapse and 149 ER-positive women did. The study and results were published Tuesday in the online edition of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Estrogen-receptor (ER) negative tumors are considered more deadly than ER-positive ones. However, "women who had ER-positive cancer were more likely to have late recurrences than those with ER-negative," according to Len Lichtenfeld, M.D., the American Cancer Society deputy chief medical officer in

However, what to do about this continued risk is up in the air, Dr. Lichtenfeld said.

A possible treatment alternative is in the works by British and Finnish researchers, who are testing a combination of two inexpensive, commonly used and easily available drugs on killing cancer-cells in tumors.

The first drug is doxorubicin, a common chemotherapy-regimen drug, followed 24 hours later by the osteoporosis medication zoledronic acid. When tested on mice, the drug combo was 99.99 percent effective in killing such cells. Human trials are currently underway with results expected later this year.

This announcement was also made in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Each year in the U.S., around 180,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. In the U.K., almost 46,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.

Heather J. Chin can be reached at

©The Evening Bulletin 2008

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