McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Shorter course of radiation therapy benefits women in early stages of breast cancer

By Laura Thompson
Published: September 23, 2008
Timothy Whelan
Dr. Timothy Whelan, professor of oncology, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine
Audio: CHML 900: Interview

Women with early-stage breast cancer who receive a shorter, more intense course of radiation have a low risk of side effects and recurrence of the cancer more than decade after treatment, a Canadian study has found.

Researchers discovered that the shorter, three-week treatment — called accelerated hypofractionated whole-breast irradiation — is just as effective as the standard five-week course of radiation following surgery to remove the malignancy.

The lead author is Dr. Timothy Whelan, a professor of oncology of the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University and a radiation oncologist at the Juravinski Cancer Centre at Hamilton Health Sciences. The results will be presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology on Sept. 22.

"There has been renewed interest in hypofractionated whole-breast irradiation, due to the potential radiation advantages, patient convenience, quality of life and lower costs.  However, long-term effects were a potential concern," Whelan said. "We were surprised that the risk of local recurrence and side effects for women treated with accelerated whole-breast irradiation was so low even at 12 years. Our study shows that this treatment should be offered to select women with early-stage breast cancer."

Many women with early-stage breast cancer are able to undergo breast-conserving therapy to keep their breast after treatment. Typically, this means they first have a lumpectomy to remove the cancer followed by a course of radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Between April 1993 and September 1996, researchers randomly assigned 1,234 women from Quebec and Ontario to be treated with either accelerated whole-breast radiation or standard whole-breast radiation. The participants were followed for 12 years to determine if the accelerated whole-breast radiation was as effective as the standard treatment.

A decade after treatment, breast cancer returned in 6.2 percent of patients treated with the accelerated radiation therapy, compared to 6.7 percent for patients treated with standard therapy.  Both groups of patients also had a good or excellent cosmetic outcome from the radiation treatments.

"This shorter treatment may not be for everyone, however, I would encourage women whose breast cancer is caught early to talk to their oncologist to see if they are a good candidate for this shorter therapy," Whelan said.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Level Double-A conformance, W3C WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0