Recent statistics show that in the United States, 1 in 8 women develop invasive breast cancer over their lifetime. More than 266,000 women are expected to be diagnosed with new cases this year alone.
"We're ever trying to refine cancer treatment to treat only those people who will benefit from it," said Dr. Roger Kwong, an oncologist at Gundersen Health System.
A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that up to 70-percent of early diagnosed breast cancer patients do not need chemotherapy treatment.
"Early diagnosis means it's confined to within the breast and maybe to the lymph nodes in the axilla, but no further," said Kwong.
The findings are the result of a clinical trial conducted between 2006 and 2010 with close to nine years of follow up. Nearly 10,000 patients from across the country participated including some from La Crosse: 16 patients from Gundersen Health System and 13 patients from Mayo Clinic Health System.
"This is a commercially available test looking at a panel of 21 genes testing the womens breast cancer samples themselves," Kwong said.
One oncologist from Mayo Clinic Health System calls the findings "practice changing."
"Up until now,we had clarity in terms of what to do with the patients who were low risk. If you have a low risk disease, you don't give them chemotherapy. You just give them endocrine therapy," said Dr. Asad Javed. "There was clarity in terms of what to do with a high-risk patient. If they are high risk, give them chemotherapy. There is no doubt about that, but it was intermediate risk that the study has specifically looked at which is where the gray zone of decision making was."
The results not only guide physicians but could also save patients from unnecessary side effects of chemotherapy including hair loss, fatigue, and potentially, congestive heart failure.
"It's certainly not something you would want someone to have if they didn't benefit from it," Kwong said.
Local oncologists agree that this is another step forward in providing the best care possible not only across the country but in the Coulee Region.
Both Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System have been using the 21-gene testing in breast cancer patients for nearly a decade. Oncologists plan to continue using that analysis to make treatment decisions moving forward.
American Cancer Society's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Otis Brawley issued a statement about the findings.
"I don't get optimistic about a lot of things, but I've been very optimistic about this."
He notes the the peace of mind the study results bring to doctors and patients.