Thousands of Canadian breast cancer patients could avoid chemo, according to study

Results are expected to spare patients from having to undergo rounds of chemotherapy

Lisa Freedman, who is now cancer-free, poses for a photo outside her Toronto home on Friday, June 8, 2018. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

When Lisa Freedman was diagnosed with breast cancer, a genetic test of her tumour suggested chemotherapy would have no effect on the risk of recurrence, allowing her to safely skip the treatment and its dreaded side-effects.

“When the test came back, it showed that I would have a 13-per-cent chance of recurrence if I had chemo and a 12-per-cent chance if I didn’t have chemo,” said the Toronto lawyer, 61.

“So that became an easy no-chemo decision,” said Freedman, who has been cancer-free for two years.

A recently published U.S.-led study of more than 10,000 women whose tumours were tested determined that most patients with early-stage estrogen-positive breast cancer and no lymph-node spread should be able to avoid chemo and be treated with surgery, radiation and a hormone-blocking drug like tamoxifen alone.

The study is the largest ever performed looking at breast cancer treatment, and its results are expected to spare thousands of women in Canada each year from having to undergo rounds of chemotherapy and its harsh side-effects.

Funded by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, with additional funding from the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, the research looked at women with breast cancer with an intermediate risk of recurrence, based on their scores from the genetic test.

READ MORE: Centre gives breast cancer patients new outlook on life

Previously, scores from the US$3,000 Oncotype DX test, used since 2004, allowed doctors to sort out women at high risk and low risk of recurrence to determine whether they would benefit from chemotherapy.

But women with in-between scores fell into a grey area — should they get chemo or not?

That’s what the study, which began in 2006 and included 10,253 women aged 18 to 75, set out to determine, with participants randomized to receive chemo plus a hormone-dampening drug or that medication alone.

The results were stunning.

After nine years, the findings put the women virtually in a dead heat: more than 90 per cent of those in both groups were still alive, while almost 85 per cent in each were free of recurrence.

Researchers concluded that almost 70 per cent of women with this form of breast cancer could safely dodge chemotherapy.

“(For) women in-between, where there was some uncertainty, I think this study is very reassuring that for the majority of them we don’t have to give chemotherapy,” said Dr. Andrea Eisen, an oncologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, where 56 patients took part in the multi-centre trial.

The results represent an evolution in how this most common form of breast cancer will be treated in the future, agreed Dr. David Cescon, a breast medical oncologist and researcher at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

“There have been other studies that have contributed, other supportive information along these lines, which have allowed us to avoid chemotherapy, particularly for women in the lower end of this middle-risk group,” he said.

“But this will allow us to make those recommendations with more confidence, particularly in the higher end of the middle range for older women.”

For Freedman, being told she didn’t need chemo was welcome news, though she admitted that the time from diagnosis to having a surgical lumpectomy and the tumour test moved so quickly, she ”never had to go through that whole angst.”

Still, she was well aware of the horrors of chemo and had wondered how she would be able to work through the treatment regimen.

“I kind of visualized myself lying on the floor in the bathroom throwing up, with my hair falling out and trying to get my strength back,” Freedman said.

“So when (the oncologist) said there was absolutely no need for chemo, it was a sigh of relief, almost tears of relief.”

Eisen said there has been an ongoing shift over the decades in how breast cancer is treated.

“Everybody used to have a mastectomy, then we realized doing a lumpectomy and radiation was essentially just as good,” she said.

“And then everybody used to have an ancillary lymph-node dissection, so removal of a lot of lymph nodes under the arm. And then we realized that a smaller operation called a sentinel node biopsy could give in most cases equivalent information.

“So now this is the first time we’re really looking at drug treatment … That’s kind of a signal of how good the outcomes are becoming, that we’d look at taking away treatment, rather than giving more.”

Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Snow hosts available to help you explore the Rossland Range

Safe and responsible way to learn about Rossland Recreation Site

Trail cannabis shop gets green light from province

The Higher Path hopes to open doors in next couple of weeks

Man spotted with shotgun in East Trail leads to weapons discovery

RCMP recover numerous weapons and stolen items after search on Fifth Ave.

Butterflies for Rossland brother and sister duo heading to world ski championships

Remi and Jasmine Drolet will represent Canada in Finland

High property taxes are the price of great service, says Rossland mayor

Analysis by city shows residential property tax rate among highest in province

B.C. storm totals $37M in insured damages

The December storm wreaked havoc on B.C.’s south coast

B.C. chief says they didn’t give up rights for gas pipeline to be built

Hereditary chief: no elected band council or Crown authority has jurisdiction over Wet’suwet’en land

Condo rental bans may be on way out with B.C. empty home tax

Many exemptions to tax, but annual declarations required

UPDATE: B.C. boy, aunt missing for three days

The pair are missing from Kamloops

Daredevil changes game plan to jump broken White Rock pier

Brooke Colby tells council daredevil event would help boost waterfront business

Liberal bows out of byelection after singling out Jagmeet Singh’s race

Karen Wang says she made comments online that referenced Singh’s cultural background

Truck hauling compressed gas for ‘virtual pipeline’ crashes on B.C. highway

Driver charged and highway closed for nine hours - containers did not rupture

Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson ‘feeling good’ after knee injury

Pettersson said he wasn’t feeling any pain during Wednesday’s skate

Most Read