Health Team

Researchers look at breast cancer treatment in older patients

Posted May 19, 2009 8:09 p.m. EDT

— New research delved into the most effective breast cancer treatments for older patients.

Though young women, like 36-year-old actress Christina Applegate, have become the face for breast cancer awareness, doctors say the average woman with the disease is 63 years old.

UNC oncologist Dr. Hyman Muss says these women are normally not included in clinical trials for breast cancer treatments.

“So it's hard to generalize a lot of the great advances in cancer to older people,” Muss said.

Shirley Colagrosi, of Pittsboro, was 69 when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2003.

“I think often older people are looked at as over the hill and they’re on the way out and why bother?” Colagrosi said.

At the time, Colagrosi wasn’t sure chemotherapy was worth her while. ”I wasn't sure that I wanted to put that in my body,” she said.

A large clinical trial, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at 600 women with early stage breast cancer ages 65 and older.

Researchers compared standard chemotherapy with a new oral drug capecitabine.

“Surprisingly, the pill wasn't as good as the old fashioned chemotherapy which has been around for 20 years,” Muss said.

The standard therapy group had a 5 to 10 percent higher rate of survival and 10 to 15 percent lower chance of cancer returning.

Colagrosi chose surgery, radiation and standard chemotherapy. Six years after treatment, only a slight loss of feeling in her feet lingers.

“It's a small price to pay to be able to be here, because my prognosis wasn't great,” she said.

Colagrosi enjoys a full and active life now and hopes other women of her generation with breast cancer will have the same opportunity.