Shorter course of radiation therapy works for women with early-stage breast cancer

01 September 2008

Dr Timothy WhelanOctober 2008 – A shorter, more intense course of radiation therapy for women with early-stage breast cancer is as effective as the longer standard therapy, according to a major Canadian-led study. The findings are good news – both for patients and the healthcare system.

Led by Dr Timothy Whelan, the research team compared a shorter treatment approach, which took only one to three weeks, to the standard therapy of five to seven weeks and found that there was no significant difference in the rates of cancer recurrence. After 12 years, cancer returned in 6.2% of patients treated with the shorter therapy, compared to 6.7% of patients given standard therapy.

The researchers also found that both groups of patients had good or excellent cosmetic outcomes from the radiation treatments, meaning the breast did not have discoloration, shrinkage or scarring from radiation. If radiation is too toxic, it will cause scarring and thickening that can deform a woman’s breasts.

Since Dr Whelan presented his initial research findings in 2002, the treatment has been widely adopted in Canada. He estimates that 60 to 70% of women with early-stage breast cancer in Canada already receive it. However, the approach has not yet been universally or internationally adopted for all women who are good candidates.

"Our patients are strong supporters of this shorter treatment approach because it’s much more convenient and less costly – they travel less for treatments and they do not miss as much work," says Dr Whelan, a radiation oncologist at the Juravinski Cancer Centre at McMaster University.

He adds that the shortened treatment schedule also benefits the healthcare system. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Canadian women, accounting for up to 25% of all radiation therapy. By reducing the length of treatment, more women may have speedy access to radiotherapy equipment and technicians, he says.

The study included 1,234 women with early-stage node-negative breast cancer – or cancer that had not spread to lymph nodes under the arm. Between 1993 and 1996, the researchers randomly assigned women to either the shorter therapy approach, also called accelerated hypofractionated whole breast irradiation, or standard therapy.

Dr Whelan is a leader in this area of research and has received ongoing funding support for these and other studies from the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance (CBCRA). The CBCRA is a breast cancer research initiative in which the Canadian Cancer Society is a funding and founding partner.

The new findings were recently presented at the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology 2008 annual meeting.

Other recent breast cancer discoveries funded by the Canadian Cancer Society

New results from breast cancer clinical trial show non-breast cancer related causes account for most deaths