Breast Cancer Radiation: Less is More?

When it comes to treating breast cancer doctors are finding that in some cases, less is more.

Most women who are diagnosed with early stage breast cancer typically have surgery and then radiation to reduce the chances that the disease will return, but radiation brings a host of side effects, including swelling, breast shrinkage and enlargement of surrounding blood vessels. These and other side effects can make it difficult for women to complete a full course of radiation, so doctors are exploring whether less radiation could be equally effective in fighting breast cancer.

A typical course of radiation occurs in 25 installments given over five weeks. In two new studies that included more than 4,000 participants, researchers looked at what happened when women received higher amounts of radiation in fewer doses.

Over a five-year period, they found that women treated with less radiation were no more likely to have their breast cancer return than those who received traditional radiation. All groups remained largely cancer free - only two to five percent of women had their breast cancer recur, but the women who received less radiation also had lower rates of side effects, suggesting the shorter treatment schedule is both safer and effective.