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Saturday, 5 October, 2002, 23:38 GMT 00:38 UK
Breast cancer damage reduced
Breast scan
Thousands are diagnosed with breast cancer each year
A type of radiotherapy which precisely targets a breast tumour has managed to cut damage to healthy tissue by a third.

Many women who have a breast lump removed are given a course of radiation treatment to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

However, because the margin between tumour and surrounding tissue is irregular, focusing the radiotherapy beam on the tumour inevitably means that areas of healthy tissue are hit too.

This can cause not only intense discomfort, but also cosmetic changes, such as breast shrinkage.


It's essential that we develop treatments that not only improve survival, but also aim to make the lives of survivors better

Professor John Yarnold, Royal Marsden Hospital
In severe cases, women may actually suffer rib fractures or severe muscle stiffness.

However, scientists at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London are testing a system called intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT), in which the doses of radiation are controlled precisely to minimise this unwanted damage.

Preliminary results from their study reveal that women who get the new form of treatment are up to 30% less likely to suffer breast shrinkage or other physical changes compared with those given conventional radiotherapy.

There is no suggestion at the moment that the new method is any better at actually curing the disease, although any advance which allows a tumour to be targeted more precisely could hold the potential for radiotherapy doses to be increased to that area.

Side-effects

Professor John Yarnold, who led the Cancer Research UK-funded 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.

"It's essential that we develop treatments that not only improve survival, but also aim to make the lives of survivors better."

The researchers looked at 261 women who were either given the new treatment or conventional radiotherapy.

With conventional treatment, 54% of the women suffered permanent changes to their breasts, compared with 37% of the IMRT group.

The women, when asked about how they felt about the impact of their treatment, found their perceptions of breast hardness and discomfort were similar to the assessment of the doctors - suggesting that the potential benefits to women are genuine.

Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: "There's been tremendous progress in improving the effectiveness of treatments for breast cancer, but it's also important that we work towards ways of reducing the side effects of treatment."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Adam Brimelow
"It uses computer imaging to assess the breasts density and depth to ensure an even dose"
See also:

15 Jul 02 | Talking Point
03 Jul 02 | Health
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