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Breast cancer therapy minus side-effects

A new type of radiotherapy for breast cancer reduces side-effects and enables patients to maintain “quality of life and self-esteem”, doctors said on Sunday.

The announcement follows trials of a computer-imaging system, Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy. Women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer usually have surgery to remove the tumour followed by radiotherapy to prevent a return of the cancer. But radiotherapy causes some women’s breasts to shrink or makes them feel lumpy or sore. Patients can also be prone to rare but serious side-effects, including rib fractures and muscle stiffness.

Preliminary results released on Sunday show that women given IMRT are 30 per cent less likely to suffer shrinkage of their breasts or other physical changes, compared with those receiving conventional radiotherapy. Much of the damage from conventional treatment occurs because doses of radiation vary considerably as they reach different parts of the breast, with some areas receiving much larger amounts than others.

IMRT uses computer imaging to judge the depth and density of tissue so that radiotherapy can be applied in equal doses to all parts.

The trial was funded by Cancer Research UK, the Royal Marsden Hospital in London and the Directorate of Health and Social Care South. Prof John Yarnold, of the Royal Marsden, who led the research, said: “Women whose breast cancers are diagnosed at an early stage have a very good chance of recovery but damage to their breasts and related side-effects of treatment can cause serious problems for quality of life and self-esteem.

“Our results so far suggest that IMRT will have a real and positive impact on the quality of life of women treated for breast cancer and may safeguard them from a wide range of side-effects.”

Researchers examined women before and two years after treatment, noting the damage to breast tissue in 261 patients who agreed to be given either IMRT or conventional radiotherapy. They found that with conventional treatment 54 per cent of women experienced permanent changes to the appearances of their breasts, compared with 37 per cent in the IMRT group.

Prof Yarnold said he hoped the preliminary results would encourage larger-scale studies so the method could be introduced into clinical practice as soon as possible.

Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel Prize winner and chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “IMRT has the potential to improve prospects for many patients undergoing radiotherapy.”

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