The curability of breast cancer and the treatment of advanced disease

Eur J Nucl Med Mol Imaging. 2004 Jun;31 Suppl 1:S149-61. doi: 10.1007/s00259-004-1538-5. Epub 2004 Apr 24.


Breast cancer represents a major health problem, with more than 1,000,000 new cases and 370,000 deaths yearly worldwide. In the last decade, in spite of an increasing incidence, breast cancer mortality has been declining in the majority of developed countries. This is the combined result of better education, widespread screening programmes and more efficacious adjuvant treatments. Better knowledge of breast cancer biology now allows the cosmetic, physical and psychological consequences of radical mastectomy to be spared in the majority of breast cancer patients. Use of the sentinel node technique is rapidly expanding and this will further reduce the extent and the consequences of surgery. Several clinico-pathological factors are used to discriminate between patients at low (<10%), average (10-40%) and high risk of relapse. Nodal status, tumour size, tumour grade and age are accepted universally as important factors to define risk categories. Newer factors such as uPA/PAI-1, HERer2-neu, proliferative indices and gene expression profile are promising and will allow better discrimination between patients at different risk. Endocrine manipulation with tamoxifen, ovarian ablation or both is the preferred option in the case of endocrine-responsive tumours. Tamoxifen administered for 5 years is the standard treatment for postmenopausal patients; tamoxifen plus ovarian ablation is more effective than tamoxifen alone for premenopausal women. Recent data demonstrate that, for postmenopausal patients, the aromatase inhibitors are superior to tamoxifen, with a different safety profile. At present, anastrozole can be used in the adjuvant setting in cases of tamoxifen intolerance or toxicity. Chemotherapy is the treatment of choice for steroid receptor-negative tumours. Polychemotherapy is superior to single agents and anthracycline-containing regimens are superior to CMF. Six courses of FEC or FAC or the sequential administration of four doses of anthracycline followed by four of CMF are the recommended regimens. New regimens including the taxanes have produced a further improvement in risk reduction and are reasonable therapeutic options. The taxanes have been approved for adjuvant therapy in the USA, while European approval is pending. Combined endocrine-chemotherapy is the standard adjuvant treatment in high-risk patients with endocrine-responsive tumours. Endocrine manipulation is usually administered after completion of the chemotherapy programme. For HER2-neu overexpressing tumours, several rapidly accruing trials are exploring the potential additive effect of trastuzumab, a monoclonal antibody directed against the extramembrane portion of the HER2 receptor. Primary chemotherapy is increasingly used in the treatment of locally advanced and operable breast cancer, with increased rates of breast-conserving surgery. A proportion of patients achieve a pathological complete response and these patients have significantly better long-term outcomes. Twenty-five to forty percent of breast cancer patients develop distant metastases. At this stage the disease is incurable; however, treatments can assure a significant prolongation of survival, symptomatic control and maintenance of quality of life. In the case of hormone receptor positivity and in the absence of visceral, life-threatening disease, endocrine manipulation is the treatment of choice. Active treatments include tamoxifen, ovarian ablation, aromatase inhibitors, pure anti-oestrogens and progestins. Aromatase inhibitors are the most active agents, but the choice and the sequence of endocrine therapies are also dictated by prior adjuvant treatment. Chemotherapy has to be preferred in cases of receptor-negative tumours, acquired resistance to hormones and aggressive visceral disease. Combination regimens are usually associated with higher response rates and sometimes survival prolongation, and this approach should be recommended in young patients with good performance status and visceral disease. On the other hand, single agents have a better tolerability profile and should be tand should be the treatment of choice when a careful balance between activity and tolerability is needed. For HER2-neu positive tumours, the combination of trastuzumab and chemotherapy is significantly superior to chemotherapy alone in terms of both response rates and survival. Other useful palliative treatments include bisphosphonates for the control of metastatic bone disease and radiotherapy for painful bone lesions or local relapses.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bone Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Bone Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Bone Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Bone Neoplasms / surgery
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphatic Metastasis
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Risk Assessment / methods
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antineoplastic Agents