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Doctors Looking At Chemo First To Treat Breast Cancer

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RALEIGH, N.C. — There were about 5,500 new cases of breast cancer last year in North Carolina. In the past, the protocol was to immediately remove the lump and then follow-up with chemotherapy, but a study just released by the University of North Carolina's Lineberger Cancer Center may change that.

Doctors diagnosed Rebecca Claiborne with stage 3 breast cancer seven years ago. They suggested chemotherapy first, followed by surgery. That plan saved her breast and her life.

"It means a lot to me not to have to lose your breast, but you know if it means the difference in your life or losing your breast, you're going to take the option that's going to save you," Claiborne said.

Dr. William Cance said a 10-year study at UNC's Lineberger Cancer Center confirms this protocol works. The chemotherapy shrinks large tumors that were once considered inoperable. It also decreases the need for a mastectomy.

"That's a safe treatment and effective for long-term outcomes, and it also allows a significant portion of those women to keep their breasts," he said. "When the chemotherapy shrinks the tumor, we can frequently go in and remove a much smaller tumor and preserve the breast and we're able to do that in about half the women."

Seventy-six percent of women in the study survived for at least five years.

"Looking at these patients over the long term, we can see that the outcomes are outstanding," Cance said.

"If you know what you're dealing with, you can deal with it," Claiborne said. "It's the unknown. That's the hard part. I don't think it ever leaves you. It's always there."

In nearly half of the patients, the chemotherapy shrunk the size of the tumors making surgery possible and easier. The protocol also involves following-up the surgery with more chemotherapy and radiation.


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