Abstract

Background:

Breast-conservation surgery is now commonly used to treat breast cancer. Postoperative breast irradiation reduces cancer recurrence in the breast. There is still controversy concerning the necessity of irradiation of the breast in all patients.

Purpose:

We present an update of results from a randomized clinical trial designed to examine the efficacy of breast irradiation following conservation surgery in the treatment of women with axillary lymph node-negative breast cancer. The patients were enrolled from April 1984 through February 1989. Initial results were published in 1992 after a median follow-up time of 43 months. It was reported that recurrence of cancer in the breast occurred in 5.5% of the patients who received breast irradiation compared with 25.7% of those who did not. No difference in survival was detected between the two treatment groups. Now that the median patient follow-up has reached 7.6 years, the trial end points have been re-examined and an attempt has again been made to identify a group of patients at low risk for recurrence of cancer in the breast.

Methods:

Eight hundred thirty-seven patients with node-negative breast cancer were randomly assigned to receive either radiation therapy (n = 416) or no radiation therapy (n = 421) following lumpectomy and axillary lymph node dissection. The cumulative local recurrence rate as a first event, distant recurrence (i.e., occurrence of metastasis) rate, and overall mortality rate for the treatment groups were described by the Kaplan-Meier method and compared with the use of the logrank test. The Cox proportional hazards model was used to adjust the observed treatment effect for the influence of various prognostic factors (patient age, tumor size, estrogen receptor level, and tumor histology) at study entry on the outcomes of local breast recurrence, distant recurrence, and overall mortality. All P values resulted from the use of two-tailed statistical tests.

Results:

One hundred forty eight (35%) of the nonirradiated patients and 47 (11%) of the irradiated patients developed recurrent cancer in the breast (relative risk for patients in the former versus the latter group = 4.0; 95% confidence interval = 2.83–5.65; P <.0001). Ninety-nine (24%) of the patients in the former group have died compared with 87 (21%) in the latter group. Age (<50 years), tumor size (>2cm), and tumor nuclear grade (poor) continued to be important predictors for local breast relapse. On the basis of these factors, we were unable to identify a subgroup of patients with a very low risk for local breast cancer recurrence. Tumor nuclear grade, as previously reported, and tumor size were important predictors for mortality.

Conclusions:

Breast irradiation was shown to reduce cancer recurrence in the breast, but there was no statistically significant reduction in mortality. A subgroup of patients with a very low risk for local breast recurrence who might not require radiation therapy was not identified.