Chemotherapy failing some young breast cancer sufferers, finds study

Young women suffering from breast cancer do not necessarily benefit from chemotherapy treatment, a study has found.

According to the research, published in the online journal Breast Cancer Research, women under the age of 40 with breast cancer who are given drugs in addition to lumpectomies or radiotherapy,
known as adjuvant chemotherapy, may not be benefiting from these drugs. This is especially true if their tumours respond to changing levels of hormones such as oestrogen, the researchers from
the Netherlands found.

‘Developing breast cancer at a young age is very worrying in terms of survival,’ explained lead researcher Dr J van der Hage from the Leiden University Medical Center. ‘But some young women may
be undergoing not only unpleasant but also unnecessary chemotherapy, which can be avoided.’

Almost 10% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Europe are under the age of 40. Two-thirds of breast cancers, known as oestrogen receptor positive (ER ), contain high levels of cells that
contain oestrogen receptors. These tumours tend to grow less aggressively than oestrogen receptor negative (ER-) tumours. Currently, young patients with breast cancer are advised to undergo
courses of chemotherapy, as well as removal of the tumour and/or entire breast.

Dr van der Hage’s team from the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) selected patients from four separate EORTC-trials with the aim of studying the effects of
chemotherapy in young women. The team found that ER patients, while benefitting from their chemotherapy treatment, did not survive at higher rates than ER- patients.

The difference in survival rates between the two treatment groups was just 5% (in favour of the ER- group), indicating that the chemotherapy gave no advantage. Of all the patients examined,
including those who had only undergone primary treatment such as a mastectomy, over 25% had died seven years after initial diagnosis.

‘Adjuvant chemotherapy is a well established, but ineffective treatment in ER breast cancer patients aged 40 years or less. Hormone responsiveness is the key to tailoring therapy in the future
fight against this disease for young women,’ concluded Dr van der Hage.

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