Caring Currents

New Test Can Spare Breast Cancer Patients from Chemo

Last updated:

May 07, 2008

Is there a breast cancer patient in your life trying to decide whether to have chemotherapy? Tell her to ask her doctor about a genetic test called Oncotype DX. Two new studies show that the test can spare many women the debilitating effects of chemotherapy by determining if their cancer has a low recurrence risk. Available since 2004 but still not in wide use, Oncotype DX analyzes the action of 21 genes and "types" tumor cells according to their genetic thumbprint. The results predict which breast cancers have a low, medium, and high rate of recurrence.

Experts have long known that most women with early stage, estrogen-receptor-positive breast tumors that haven't spread to the lymph nodes won't benefit from chemotherapy. But since doctors had no way of knowing which cancers were aggressive and likely to recur and which weren't, they had to give all patients chemo to be safe.

The study results presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons this past weekend make it clear that Oncotype DX, which has been available for four years, can put an end to this "one size fits all" treatment approach. For example, half of the 78 women who participated in one study would traditionally have been given chemotherapy,  but oncotyping revealed that only nine of them actually needed it, researchers said.

Doctors are hoping the studies influence insurance companies to expand coverage of Oncotype DX, which is an expensive test at about $3,500. Since avoiding chemo could save an insurance company $7,000 or more in costs, suddenly the equation makes sense. Let's hope these new studies convince insurers to make oncotyping the standard of care. And meanwhile, let's spread the word that a simple test might spare the breast cancer patients we love from the discomforts of chemo.

Image by Flickr user estherase used under creative commons attribution license.