Data presented at the world’s biggest meeting of cancer doctors and scientists at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago has caused a stir amongst the worldwide cancer treatment community, and for good reason: its findings on trials of a genetic test that analyses the danger of a tumour have concluded that as many as 70% of women with the most common form of early-stage breast cancer can safely avoid the challenges inherent in chemotherapy treatment.
We know that chemotherapy – the course of treatment designed to reduce the chance of breast cancer spreading or coming back, can (and has) saved lives across the world, but the side-effects of the toxic drugs deployed in the treatment are manifold. In ‘mild’ cases, these range from vomiting, fatigue and infertility to permanent nerve pain – and in extremely rare cases, it can lead to heart failure and leukaemia.
However, the trial – which involved the studying of cancer in 10,273 women using a genetic test that is already widely available, including on our NHS – is set to change practices across the world immediately, meaning that many women with breast cancer can be treated safely with surgery and hormone therapy.
An end to uncertainty?
The genetic test has been used for a while now, and women who get a low score on the test are told they do not need chemotherapy, while those with a high score are told they definitely do. But the problem has been that the vast majority of test results fall into an intermediate range, with an unclear result – which results in them undergoing chemo as a precautionary measure.
The data presented in Chicago by the Albert Einstein Cancer Center in New York, however, has demonstrated that women in the intermediate range have practically the same survival rates with or without chemo: the nine-year-survival-rate was 93.9% without chemotherapy and 93.8% with chemotherapy. This is a doubly important development: not only will fewer women have to undergo chemo, but it will also save a lot of money for a cash-strapped health service and instantly change the way the medical community deals with cancer.
According to experts, this means that an estimated 3,000 women a year in the UK will no longer need chemotherapy because of this trial.
A ‘life-changing breakthrough’
The test focuses specifically upon early-stage breast cancers – specifically those that can still be treated with hormone therapy, have not spread to the lymph nodes and do not have the HER2 mutation, which makes them develop faster. The test is performed on a sample of the tumour when it is removed during surgery, and examines the activity levels of 21 genes, which are markers of how aggressive the cancer is.
As Rachel Rawson, from the charity Breast Cancer Care, pointed out: “Every day, women with certain types of breast cancer face the terrible dilemma of whether or not to have the treatment, without hard facts about the benefit for them.
“This life-changing breakthrough is absolutely wonderful news as it could liberate thousands of women from the agony of chemotherapy.”