May 15, 2006

Surgery Helps if Even Breast Cancer Spread

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Surgery greatly increases a patient's chances of surviving with breast cancer, even if the cancer has spread by the time a woman is diagnosed, Swiss researchers reported on Monday.

Although many women around the world are simply offered what is known as palliative care, to help them live a little longer and make them comfortable while they wait to die, surgery could help them live much longer, the researchers found.

"Based on these findings, we believe that it is time to take a hard look at the current standard of care for breast cancer patients initially diagnosed with metastatic disease," said Dr. Elisabetta Rapiti of the Geneva Cancer Registry at the University of Geneva, who led the study.

"Our study strongly suggests that surgery of the primary tumor could provide an important survival gain for women with metastatic breast cancer at initial diagnosis," Rapiti added in a statement.

More than 211,000 men and women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States alone this year and 43,300 will die. Globally, more than 500,000 people die each year of breast cancer, according to the World Health Organization.

Only about 6 percent of women are initially diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer -- breast cancer that has spread elsewhere in the body. Metastatic breast cancer is considered incurable.

Rapiti's team studied 5,000 patient records from the past 35 years and found that women with metastatic breast cancer at initial diagnosis were 40 percent less likely to die from the disease if they had the primary tumor surgically removed.

Of the 300 women diagnosed with breast cancer that had already spread, 58 percent did not get any surgery while 42 percent got either a mastectomy or had the tumor removed.

The five-year survival rate for women who had successful surgery was 27 percent, compared to 16 percent for women who had surgery but whose tumors were not completely removed, and 12 percent for women who did not undergo surgery, Rapiti reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Among women whose cancer had spread only to the bone, those who had successful surgery were 80 percent more likely to be alive five years after diagnosis than women who did not have surgery, they found.