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Tens of Thousands of Early Breast Cancer Patients May Not Need Chemo After All

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting—aka the world’s largest cancer conference—began last Friday in Chicago. And while it doesn’t officially wrap up until Tuesday afternoon, the confab’s already produced a flurry of news on the latest in cancer drug development, from updates on immune therapy R&D to the promise (and, importantly, the limitations) of newfangled treatments for a growing number of cancers.

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But some of the more striking developments unveiled in the past week involve breast cancer. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that a significant number of women with early-stage breast cancer may not require chemotherapy—which could potentially be a huge deal for tens of thousands of patients at the edges of the disease.

“Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States and worldwide,” note the study authors. “[Secondary treatment with] chemotherapy reduces the risk of recurrence… These findings led a National Institutes of Health consensus panel to recommend adjuvant chemotherapy for most patients, a practice that has contributed to declining breast cancer mortality. However, the majority of patients may receive chemotherapy unnecessarily.”

Specifically, the researchers found that a significant swath of women who have early-stage breast cancer of the estrogen-receptor-positive, HER2-negative variety (with smaller tumors that haven’t spread to the lymph nodes) may not actually benefit from chemotherapy. Exactly which patients fall into this particular range is determined with the help of a genetic test that looks for 21 cancer-associated genes.

The findings suggest that thousands of women could one day forgo a treatment with long-term health ramifications without risking the spread of cancer.