More Breast Cancer Sufferers May Be Spared Chemotherapy

More young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer could be spared painful doses of chemotherapy after scientists proved that a readily available drug offers an equally effective treatment.

The review of the cancer treatment regimes of thousands of women, published in the Lancet today, finds that luteinising hormone should be offered to all 5,500 premenopausal women diagnosed each year with hormone-receptive breast cancer.

One leading breast cancer surgeon whose work was included in the study said it was the evidence they had been waiting 20 years for. The drug, marketed in the UK as Zoladex, temporarily switches off the ovaries and with them the production of oestrogen on which up to 60% of all breast cancers feed. But it is reversible, meaning that unlike with most chemotherapy, women will nearly always be able to conceive once they are in remission and off the drug.

The study found it reduced the chances of recurrence by 30% in women with lower-risk cancers – as good as chemotherapy – and had an additional 20% reduction when used with chemotherapy in women with higher-risk cancers.

Jack Cuzick, a Cancer Research UK scientist and lead author of the study, said the results “mean that premenopausal women with hormone receptor-positive low-risk breast cancer could consider treatment that is as effective as chemotherapy without having to endure unpleasant side effects and risk losing their fertility.” It would be used in addition to Tamoxifen, the standard treatment for women under 40.

Michael Baum, emeritus professor of surgery at University College London, said: “It’s taken 20 years for us to demonstrate that we can get equally good results using Zoladex. This is that evidence. It’s a crystal clear look at the combined data and finds that you can add Zoladex to improve some younger women’s outcomes.”

The researchers also believe it could bring long-term benefits by reducing the possibility that a woman will develop a new post-menopausal breast cancer further down the line by 50%.

Unlike the other new breast cancer drugs Zoladex is cheap at just $85 (£43) a month, making it less expensive than chemotherapy. It is given in monthly injections and recommended for a minimum of two years. By stitching off the ovaries, it makes women temporarily menopausal.

But because it is such an instantaneous switch, many women find the sudden hot flushes and hormonal imbalance difficult to tolerate, though most say it is better than the discomfort of chemotherapy. It has been offered to women by some doctors but the researchers say that it is under-prescribed.