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Dr. Kim Mulvihill reporting When it comes to treating breast cancer, age matters. The current reluctance to use chemotherapy for elderly patients may be a bad idea.
Nearly half of all breast cancers happen in women over 65. Many oncologists worry chemotherapy would be too hard on them. A new study shows they're tougher than we think.
Sixty-seven year old Joanne Neubert was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Joanne Newbert/ 67 year old Cancer Patient: "I had surgery in August and started chemotherapy in September, and I finished up just before the holidays."
Chemotherapy kills microscopic cancer cells and lowers the risk of recurrence. But those drugs can take a toll, making patients nauseous, weak and exhausted. Many physicians shy away from offering chemo to older patients, or they use a lower dose. But now a new study challenges this concern, and found for patients over 65, a full dose of chemo may be beneficial.
Researchers tracked about six-thousand breast cancer patients, about six-hundred of whom were age 65 or older, to see how they responded to high doses of chemo
Hyman Muss, M.D./ Researcher: "All of the women had involvement of their lymph nodes, the glands under their arm, as part of their breast cancer, which makes them at very high risk of reccurrence."
Otherwise the women were in good health. Older patients did have a slightly higher risk of bad reactions to the chemo, but not enough to outweigh the benefits.
The higher dose of chemo lowered the risk of recurrence, and the risk of dying from breast cancer. Joanne is now cancer-free, and glad her age didn't get in the way.
Joanne: "I don't think it's fair for people my age not to be treated like every other woman. I think I'm just as capable of surviving as well as anybody else."
A healthy woman who is 65 can expect to live another 20 years. I think most women would say chemo is worth it.
Almost half of all breast cancers are in women over 65, but in this study there was only a small percent who were elderly. I think we could do a much better job-- very few patients over 65 have been involved in clinical trials. Some have age restrictions, but bias plays a bigger role, as does reluctance by physicians.