Health Report: Breast cancer treatment, how much is too much?

When a woman is facing breast cancer, treatments like radiation and the removal of potentially cancerous lymph nodes are designed to stop cancer from coming back.

Now, researchers are studying the benefits of cutting back on certain treatments for some patients. Chemo, radiation, surgery and new advances in breast cancer treatment have contributed to a 43% reduction in breast cancer deaths over the past 30 years.

“And so, through those advances, we’re doing better with outcomes, but now, we’re trying to make sure that we give the right treatment to the right patient,” said Adrian Lee, PhD, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Dr. Adrian Lee and his colleagues studied data from women over 70 years old with ER-positive, HER2-negative cancer. The researchers focused on radiotherapy and sentinel lymph node biopsy – two treatments that can have significant side effects.

“With sentinel lymph node biopsy, you have a risk of lymphedema, which many men and women suffer from with swollen arms,” Dr. Lee added.

Radiotherapy, which is designed to kill remaining cancer cells, can cause nerve pain and skin irritation.

Researchers used an advanced computer program and determined that the rates of recurrence were the same, whether women had sentinel lymph node biopsy and radiotherapy or not, suggesting that those treatments can be reduced or eliminated in some patients.

“So, if we can reduce that and reduce the use of that safely in cancers where we know that they’re unlikely to recur, then, that’s good for everyone,” said Dr. Lee.

Next, these scientists want to know if patients ages 50 to 70 could also do better with less treatment.