Harvard Women's Health Watch

Women over 70 may be getting unneeded radiation for breast cancer treatment

Although research suggests that women over 70 with early-stage breast cancer can skip radiation treatment, nearly two-thirds of women in that age group continue to receive it, according to findings published online Dec. 2, 2014, by the journal Cancer.

Researchers from Duke University sought to determine whether evidence from a large, randomized clinical trial published in 2004 had influenced treatment for early breast cancer. That study showed that adding radiation therapy to surgery plus tamoxifen does not reduce five-year recurrence rates or prolong survival in older women with early-stage tumors.

The researchers used a national cancer database to identify 40,583 women older than 70 who were treated with lumpectomy from 2000 to 2009. They found that from 2000 to 2004 (before the trial results were published), 68.6% of the women also received some form of radiation therapy. From 2005 to 2009 (after the results became known), 61.7% still received radiation. In short, a majority of older women with early breast cancers continued to undergo radiation treatment despite evidence that it doesn't lower recurrence rates.

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