Breast cancer follow-ups “no longer guess-work” thanks to new physics research

As the number of breast cancer patients rises, and hospitals struggle to meet the growing cost of healthcare provision, new research by physicists could help divert funds into frontline treatment such as chemotherapy drugs and better imaging technology.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in England and Wales and one in nine women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives. Research published today (Monday 1st March 2004) in the Institute of Physics journal Physics in Medicine & Biology reveals a new technique that will help doctors to judge more accurately how long they should continue to see patients following successful treatment of breast cancer. Doctors currently see patients for follow-up examinations for up to ten years in order to check for recurrence of the tumour. Until now, this length time (the “follow-up period”) has been guess-work by doctors, and is generally much longer than necessary.

Dr. Richard Mould, the lead author of the paper, said: “Doctors tend to follow-up cancer patients for much longer than is really necessary, using hospital resources that could be better spent on frontline treatment such as chemotherapy drugs and better imaging technology in hospitals.”

He continued: “This is the first time scientists have produced a formal way of calculating a precise length of follow-up needed, and it can be specific to a particular hospital or region. Our study suggests that follow up times can be reduced from ten years to four years without significantly reducing our ability to detect local tumour reccurrance. This means that six years worth of a physician’s time and outpatient clinic costs could instead be diverted to parts of the treatment process where it would do more good.”

Using data taken from a series of patients with T1 and T2 stage (primary tumours up to 5cm in greatest dimension) breast cancer from the Institut Curie in Paris, Dr. Mould developed a model which involves calculating a “trade-off” between the maximum length of time needed for follow-up against the number of patients who will experience a delay. He found that doctors at Institut Curie could reduce their follow-up period from ten years to four years without any significant delay in detection of recurrence for breast cancer patients.

The research team, led by Dr Mould, included Bernard Asselain and Yann De Rycke, from the Institut Curie, Paris, France.

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