Can Some Breast Cancer Patients Skip Radiation?

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Jill Chadwick

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          Researchers at The University of Kansas Cancer Center have launched a clinical trial that eliminates radiation from the treatment protocol for an invasive type of breast cancer that accounts for one-fifth of all breast cancer patients.

These are the patients who have breast tumors that contain high levels of a protein known as HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2), which speeds up the growth of cancer cells. Treatment for HER2-positive cancer typically begins with chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, followed by surgery to remove it. Patients then undergo radiation therapy to knock out any lingering malignant cells.

Melissa Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of radiation oncology at the KU School of Medicine and a researcher affiliated with the KU Cancer Center, notes that new drugs that shut down the HER2 protein have transformed treatment for this type of cancer.

 “The treatment drugs have just become so effective that it made us think that maybe we could scale back and spare patients the side effects of radiation,” she said. Those potential side effects include swelling, dryness, itching or burning, scarring, fatigue and sometimes long-term heart and lung damage. Radiation visits also may come with a daily time or travel commitment.

Mitchell and her follow researchers are in the process of recruiting post-menopausal women at least 50 years of age who are in the early stages of HER2-positive invasive ductal carcinoma (a type of breast cancer that originates in the milk ducts), and who have clear lymph nodes. Patients in the trial will choose whether they prefer to be in the group that receives no radiation or in the control group, which will receive radiation as the typical standard of care.

“We hope to find that without radiation, patients do fantastic, that they do not have a recurrence--and all while having less risk of side effects,” Mitchell said.

The video includes the raw, unedited interview with Dr. Mitchell and b-roll of breast cancer radiation treatment.