Surgery offers breast cancer sufferers hope

The findings could lead to changes in breast cancer treatment. imagepoint

Surgery greatly increases a patient's chances of surviving with breast cancer, even if the disease has spread by the time it is diagnosed, Swiss researchers say.

This content was published on May 16, 2006 - 10:33

While many women around the world are offered palliative care, to help them live a bit longer and make them comfortable as they wait to die, surgery could help prolong life expectancy.

"Our study strongly suggests that surgery of the primary tumour could provide an important survival gain for women with metastatic breast cancer at initial diagnosis," said Elisabetta Rapiti of the Cancer Registry at Geneva University, who led the study.

Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that has spread elsewhere in the body – it 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 per cent less likely to die from the disease if the primary tumour was surgically removed.

Of the 300 women diagnosed with breast cancer that had already spread, 58 per cent did not have any surgery while 42 per cent got either a mastectomy or had the tumour removed.

The five-year survival rate for women who had successful surgery was 27 per cent, compared with 16 per cent for women who had surgery but whose tumours were not completely removed, and 12 per cent for women who did not undergo surgery.


Manuela Rabaglia, Head of Medical Affairs at the International Breast Cancer Study Group in Bern and registrar in the Oncology Unit at the Bern University hospital, says the result does not come as a complete surprise.

"It confirms assumptions that surgery of the primary tumor may play a role also in the treatment of breast cancer patients in an advanced stage of the disease," she told swissinfo.

Rabaglia adds that a previous study made a few years ago in the United States came up with similar findings.

She says chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiotherapy are the other main forms of treatment for breast cancer sufferers.

Patient records

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

More than 211,000 men and women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the US 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 (WHO).

About six per cent of women are initially diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.

"Based on [our] 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 Rapiti.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The Swiss Cancer League estimates that up to 5,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed every year in Switzerland.
One in ten women in Switzerland develop the disease a year.
The WHO says more than 500,000 people die each year of breast cancer.
Metastatic breast cancer is considered incurable.

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