More breast cancer trials need to include young women

New research shows that a lack of clinical trials aimed specifically at younger breast cancer patients leaves knowledge gaps that could be partly to blame for their poorer survival rates.

The study, by Cancer Research UK study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, analysed almost 3000 British women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40.

It looked at the survival for younger patients with oestrogen-receptor positive breast cancer; that is women whose cancers are fuelled by the female hormone oestrogen.

The findings showed that there was a steep increase in the rate of breast cancer recurrence after five years in younger women with this type of disease, who received chemotherapy followed by the drug tamoxifen. 

This is in sharp contrast to observations from other studies in older women who do not show the same relapse rate after five years. The research suggests that taking tamoxifen for a longer period of time might be of particular benefit to younger patients.

But the study also highlights the need for young breast cancer patients to be targeted to take part in treatment trials to explore different treatment approaches.

Chief investigator and head of Cancer Research UK’s Clinical Trials Unit, Professor Dianna Eccles, says, “This study adds to the evidence that breast cancer can behave very differently when diagnosed in younger women. They may require a different approach to treatment – which isn’t necessarily understood from cancer trials in older patients.

“Research is the key to improving survival for these women and we urgently need trials to help us develop new treatments tailored specifically for this age group.”

BCAC chair, Libby Burgess, agrees.  “It is vital that we learn more about how breast cancer behaves in younger women so that we can develop treatment plans which deal more effectively with the disease in this group of women.

“Survival rates for breast cancer have been improving for many years, but breast cancer in younger women is often more aggressive and can result in poorer survival rates.  We need clinicians to turn their attention to this section of the population.  International trials would be best as the recruitment pool will be larger.”

Libby says BCAC would encourage any younger New Zealand women to seriously consider taking part in a well-designed clinical trial.  “Being involved in a clinical trial can frequently be very beneficial and all participants in a trial often do better simply because they are being monitored more regularly.”

Cancer Research UK says some progress has already been made in developing new treatments which will benefit younger women, in particular PARP inhibitors which specifically target cancers caused by BRCA1 or BRCA2 faults often found in breast cancer which presents in younger women.

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