A new cancer research project funded by the United Kingdom is revealing some very positive results for breast cancer patients. The study (IMPORT LOW trial), led by The Institute of Cancer Research, London and the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre indicates that breast “cancer patients who received radiotherapy targeted at the original tumor site experience fewer side effects five years after treatment than those who have whole breast radiotherapy, and their cancer is just as unlikely to return.” The results which were recently published in The Lancet, an independent, international weekly general medical journal. “This approach could spare many women significant physical discomfort and emotional distress,” says Professor Arnie Purushotham, Cancer Research UK. “One of the challenges when treating early stage breast cancer is trying to minimize the side effects that can have a real impact on a woman’s life, without affecting the chances of curing her.”
The study included more than 2,000 women aged 50 or over who had early stage breast cancer that was at a low risk of coming back. Radiation therapy or radiotherapy uses ionizing radiation as part of cancer treatment to control or kill malignant cells. A common and effective treatment for breast cancer for many decades, large field radiotherapy is relatively painless in its application, but often the treatments produce side effects that range from low, short term to more severe, long term in nature. Depending on the intensity of the radiation, higher doses can cause varying, acute side effects for months or years following treatment. The nature, severity, and longevity of side effects depend on a number of treatment factors and the individual patient.
Precisely targeted radiation therapy can eradicate all evidence of disease in patients with cancer that has spread to only a few sites. Because radiation destroys cells, targeting the treatment to specific cancer cells limits the collateral damage to areas not affected by the cancer, reducing the side effects suffered by the patient.
The IMPROT LOW trial found that women who received partial radiotherapy reported fewer long term changes to the appearance and feel of their breast, than those who had radiotherapy to the whole breast. Dr. Charlotte Coles, Reader in Breast Radiation Oncology at Cambridge University, chief investigator for the trial and first author of the publication, said, “We started this trial because there was evidence that if someone’s cancer returns, it tends to do so close to the site of the original tumor, suggesting that some women receive unnecessary radiation to the whole breast. Now we have evidence to support the use of less, but equally effective, radiotherapy for selected patients.”
The technique, delivered by standard radiotherapy equipment, may lead to increased use of this treatment at cancer centers across the country and around the world. Professor Judith Bliss, scientific lead for the study within the Clinical Trials and Statistics Unit at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: “We’re delighted that the results of this trial have the potential to lead to a real change in the way selected breast cancer patients are treated.”