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Sunday, 13 February, 2000, 13:43 GMT
Women given new cancer therapy hope

breast screening Cancers can be found in screening programmes

Women in the early stages of breast cancer have new hope of preventing the disease spreading - thanks to a discovery on the use of radiotherapy.

The new treatment would apply to women with non-invasive breast cancer which poses no immediate threat.

At present, radiotherapy is normally given to women only after surgery to remove small, invasive tumours.

Ian Fentiman Professor Ian Fentiman: More follow-up needed
But a new study shows it can prevent the earliest detectable stage of breast cancer progressing to a life-threatening condition.

The research involved more than 1,000 women in 13 countries, suffering, a condition called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

In this condition, the milk ducts contain cancer cells that have not acquired the ability to break out and spread into the rest of the breast.

It is associated with fine chalk deposits which show up on breast X-rays, and accounts for up to one in five screen-detected cancers.

Although DCIS is not itself life-threatening, if not removed it will almost always progress to an invasive disease.

All the women in the study had DCIS that had been removed surgically.

They were then randomly assigned either to no further treatment or to radiotherapy.

Results 'encouraging'

After four years, recurrence of DCIS occurred in 9% of those who had no radiotherapy and 6% of the treated group.

Progression to invasive breast cancer occurred in 8% of the non-irradiated, but only 4% of the irradiated cases.

The findings were published in the latest edition of The Lancet medical journal.

Professor Ian Fentiman, one of the co-ordinators of the trial and consultant surgeon at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's clinical oncology unit at Guy's Hospital, London, said: "The results of this trial are encouraging, but longer follow-up will be needed to find out whether the beneficial effects of radiotherapy on local control lead to improvements in survival.

"However, some women have DCIS in more than one area of the breast and the extent of the disease means that a mastectomy is still necessary."

Dr Jean-Pierre Julien, surgical oncologist at the Centre Henry Becquerel in Rouen, France, who also co-ordinated the trial, said more studies were needed to identify features which increased the risk of recurrence and progression of DCIS.

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