It’s difficult to find a person who hasn’t been affected by cancer in some way, and for those of us who have had the sickness or lost someone to the sickness, it seems that cancer research and treatment moves at a slower-than-molasses pace. However, a new study finds that most women with early stage breast cancer may be able to skip chemotherapy, a revolutionary find that could save patients from the harsh side effects of chemotherapy treatment.
The TAILORx trial study, presented on Sunday, June 3 at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago, discovered that “patients with smaller-sized tumors that had not spread to the lymph nodes did just as well without chemo as those who got the treatment.”
This means that many women with early-stage breast cancer can skip chemotherapy altogether with no negative effects on their chances of beating the disease. “The impact is tremendous” remarks study leader Dr. Joseph Sparano of Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Surgery and hormone therapy should prove sufficient treatment for women with breast cancer; “the rest of them are receiving chemotherapy unnecessarily.”
Women with cancer receive scores based on genetic tests that determine the likelihood of relapse. The tests analyze the tumors in search for 21 genes that are associated with a high risk of recurrence. Doctors advised patients with a low risk of relapse, scores less than 11, to pursue a chemo-free treatment, but were unsure of how to treat patients with intermediate scores of 11-25.
According to AOL, TAILORx “followed 9,717 women with early-stage disease, ages 18 to 75, with estrogen-receptor-positive, HER2-negative cancers that had not spread to the lymph nodes — cases where doctors have been unsure whether chemo would be helpful.”
67 percent of these women had scored an intermediate risk of recurrence. After receiving surgery and radiation, the patients were randomly assigned to an estrogen-blocking medication and chemo or the estrogen hormone blocker alone. The study demonstrated that “it made no difference in terms of recurrence” whether a woman with intermediate risk was treated with chemotherapy or not.
Nine years later, 83.3 percent of women treated with just the anti-estrogen medication and 84.3 percent in the anti-estrogen and chemotherapy group were cancer free.
According to TIME, the study is the largest ever done of breast cancer treatment, and is expected to spare 70,000 patients in the U.S. alone from the severe side effects that come with chemotherapy.
Cancer treatment is slowly moving away from chemo treatments to gene-targeted therapies and personalized immune system treatments and hormone blockers. “This will significantly impact the way we approach things,” said Dr. William Gradishar, a professor of medicine and chief of hematology and oncology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “These kinds of tools allow us to make tailored medicine a reality, allowing us to offer the right therapy for the right patient at the right time.”
Those of us who have seen cancer attack the people we love know that patient-specific treatment is long overdue. Although this study leaves certain groups of women with breast cancer without help (those with tumors too large or with cancer that has started to metastasize), the study is a step in the right direction to reduce the suffering of cancer patients.
Among many other negative side effects, chemotherapy involves hair loss, nausea, vomiting, and a severely weakened immune system, which can be life-threatening to cancer patients. As someone who has watched people young and old suffer and perish from all different types of cancers firsthand, I’m all in favor of patient-specific treatment that increases the chance of survival, lowers the chance of relapse, and eliminates the painful suffering of chemo and other harmful medicines.
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