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Should Women be Getting More Radiation Treatment?


Posted on Dec 11, 2014

Many experts are weighing in on how much radiation treatment women with breast cancer should be getting. Apparently many women might not be getting enough.

Reuters reports on a new study about how much radiation treatment breast cancer patients should be getting. Not giving these patients enough treatment could be causing them to relapse during remission.

Experts recommend that women who get surgery to remove breast cancer be given radiation after surgery. But many women do not get this radiation. Instead they are given a different prolonged treatment plan.

Is this the best course of action?

Dr. Bekelman, from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, led the study.

He said, “Only a third of women are getting a shorter course of radiation that has been found to be effective and no more toxic. In cancer care, physicians and patients often believe that more is better. This is a treatment that shows more is not always better and sometimes less is right.”

What has been the general care plan for women in the early stages of cancer?

The usual plan for many types of early-stage breast cancer has been to get a lumpectomy for years. This is a surgery to remove malignant tissue while sparing the rest of the breast. Then this is usually followed by about five to seven weeks of radiation therapy.

What do most expert groups recommend? The American Society for Radiation Oncology generally recommends a three-week cycle of radiation at higher doses for some women age 50 and older. The latest guidelines also imply that this may work for certain younger women, but stopped short of advocating the three-week course as the new standard of care for them. Dr. Bekelman’s study talks about these details in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

How was the study conducted?

Reuters explains, “The researchers examined claims data from private health plans covering early-stage breast cancer radiation treatments from 2008 through 2013. The database included 9.2 million women, or 7.4 percent of U.S. women. Among older women who ought to be getting the shorter radiation treatment, 34.5 percent of them did get it in 2013, up from just 10.6 percent in 2008. For younger women, use of the abbreviated treatment increased to 21.2 percent from 8.1 percent.”

How would this impact women from a financial standpoint?

The study says that care costs are less for the women given shorter treatments. When it comes to older women, the average cost of care in the year after diagnosis was around $28,747. The study says that this is 9.1 percent less than the typical outlay if they had received prolonged therapy; this is another reason why many experts say doctors should be recommending this plan instead. When it comes to younger women, the average savings was around 11.8 percent with the shorter radiation treatment plan.

The study also warns that about one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. And the National Cancer Institute says yearly treatment costs for these malignancies will approximately be in excess of $20 billion by 2020.

What will probably happen in the future?

“Despite the potential for shorter radiation cycles to curb costs, some doctors may stick to the older protocol because they make more money billing for the extended course of treatment, said Dr. Benjamin Smith, associate professor of radiation oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston,” according to Reuters.

Some physicians find the radiation plan to be safer whereas others claim it is not and prescribe the longer plan. Experts urge patients to get second opinions and do their own research in figuring out what is best for their bodies.

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