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Surviving treatments

Mills College Weekly

Recent breast cancer findings don’t offer new insights for patients on treatment choice.

Two 20 year studies, involving 2,500 women with breast cancer were conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and the European Institute of Oncology in Milan. They concluded that of 47 percent of women who had a total mastectomy, removal of the entire breast, and 46 percent of those who had a lumpectomy, the removal of cancerous tissue plus a rim of normal tissue, with or without radiation treatment, were still alive 20 years later.

“There is no difference in survival whether you take the breast off or just remove the tumor,” said Dr. Bernard Fisher, scientific director of the Pittsburgh-based Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project.

Radiation treatment, which almost always follows a lumpectomy, is used to destroy cancer cells remaining in the breast, chest wall, or underarm area after surgery.

The study found that on its own radiation treatment had no affect on long-term survival, but did reduce tumor recurrence in affected areas from 39 percent to 14 percent.

Tonianne Nemeth, two time breast cancer survivor and the faculty administrative assistant of letters and executive assistant for the dean of letters, was only 29 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and opted to have a lumpectomy.

Nemeth said she was told that there was no difference in survival rates for women who opted for the different treatments.

Four years after Nemeth pursued a breast-conserving treatment, the cancer reappeared in the same area.

Looking back, she said that she would prefer to have opted for a mastectomy when the cancer was first diagnosed.

She added that had she known about the newly confirmed findings, they would not have necessarily influenced her decision.

“I guess the most disturbing thing to me about all of these studies is the relatively low number of women included in the research.”

Jean Fields, also a survivor, was diagnosed with breast cancer 42 years ago.

However, such findings were not available to her. She underwent a mastectomy, and pointed out that if a person is living in constant fear of recurrence it can be detrimental in so many ways that it may be better to undergo a masectomy.

“I would have still made the decision, given all of these years with no recurrence,” she said.

In 2001, 239,000 women and 1,000 men were diagnosed with breast cancer.