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Expert Recaps Radiation Refinements in Breast Cancer

Caroline Seymour
Published: Friday, Jun 08, 2018

Eleanor M. Walker, MD

Eleanor M. Walker, MD

Shortened and more concentrated whole-breast radiotherapy following mastectomy has demonstrated noninferiority to standard radiotherapy in women with advanced breast cancer and in younger patients who require treatment for their lymph nodes.

It may also provide relief from acute adverse events (AEs) compared with the standard 6 to 7 weeks of daily radiation, said Eleanor M. Walker, MD.

Though these recommendations for hypofractionation are reflected in the release of the updated American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) guidelines, there is an active phase III study seeking to confirm the efficacy of higher per daily radiation therapy to standard per daily radiation therapy in women with surgically removed early-stage breast cancer (NCT01349322). The trial has completed accrual, and physicians await the results within the coming year.

In an interview during the 2018 OncLive® State of the Science Summit™ on Breast Cancer, Walker, senior staff physician and division director, Breast Services, Department of Radiation Oncology, Henry Ford Cancer Institute, discussed advances in radiation therapy in breast cancer and the rationale for hypofractionated scheduling.

OncLive: Can you discuss the state of radiation therapy in breast cancer?

Walker: Radiation postsurgery, whether it be breast conservation or mastectomy, has been a standard for many years. It's used primarily for local control in breast conservation. It also can [help improve] survival. The standard for radiation today with breast conservation is to give the treatment over 5 to 6 weeks daily. It's difficult for a lot of people to come in for almost 7 weeks of treatment every day.

We have always looked at whether there is a way of potentially giving [radiation] in a shortened time that gives patients equivalent results without many more AEs. European countries and Canada first started looking at this several years ago. Unlike the United States, where we have multiple machines that can take care of all of our patients, they have limited amounts of machines, and there were delays in getting people into treatment.

By using slightly higher doses over a period of time that was found to be biologically equivalent to the 6 to 7 weeks we standardly give, they were able to show that we can use the shortened treatment time. Initially, it was used in women who didn't have very high-risk disease and didn't get chemotherapy; those patients were just getting hormone therapy.

We now have data showing that we can use [radiation] in more advanced disease over a shortened treatment time after mastectomy, as well as in younger patients or in those who need to get their lymph nodes treated without additional AEs over the standard. 

In the European studies, was there a difference in tolerability or efficacy? 

No. In longer-term follow-up, we saw that the toxicity was not any worse than [the standard] and, in some cases, the acute AEs were better than the standard. That's beneficial to patients. They don't have to worry that if they go too fast, they’re going to get more skin reaction, more pain, and burn. Patients will get that with the standard, but it has not increased [with the shorter time]. In some cases, it's definitely less [with the standard]. 

Are there patients who may not benefit from the altered-fractionation approach?

Yes. You might want to consider giving patients who have had infections afterwards, or women who get implants or expanders put in following a mastectomy, standard as opposed to hypofractionated radiation.

There is an active study currently open, in which we are looking at whether we can give women with expanders after mastectomy who are going to get a permanent implant hypofractionated radiation. Though there are some patients whom we don’t want to give hypofractionated radiation to, we are investigating if there is any way that we can. 

Can you elaborate on the areas of controversy regarding radiotherapy approaches? 

There is a big study that’s pending, but we have had a lot of small studies that have looked at hypofractionation in women getting chemotherapy in addition to radiation and potentially hormone therapy. We thought that giving a slightly higher dose per treatment might cause more skin reactions down the road. There are certain chemotherapy agents that, if a patient got during their breast cancer therapy and radiation, might induce greater reactions in the body.

View Conference Coverage
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Community Practice Connections™: How Do We Leverage PARP Inhibition Strategies in the Contemporary Treatment of Breast Cancer?May 31, 20191.5
Community Practice Connections™: A Better Way to Stop Pain: Paths Toward Responsible Postsurgical Pain Management for Patients With Breast CancerMay 31, 20191.5
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