Background: Chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer is palliative, and the optimal duration of therapy is unknown. We designed a trial to determine whether continuous treatment is superior to stopping treatment after a brief induction period and resuming treatment when the disease progresses.
Methods: We treated 250 women with metastatic breast cancer with six courses of cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, and fluorouracil given every three weeks. At the completion of this induction period, women whose disease either regressed or remained stable were randomly assigned to receive either continued treatment with cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, and fluorouracil (maintenance therapy) or no further treatment (observation) followed by treatment with cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, and fluorouracil when disease progression became evident (reinduction).
Results: The combined rate of complete and partial responses after initial therapy was 30 percent (71 of 233 patients who could be evaluated; 95 percent confidence interval, 25 percent to 37 percent). In another 42 percent (98 patients), the disease remained stable. A total of 145 patients were randomized. Seventy-one were randomly assigned to the maintenance-therapy group, and 74 to the observation group. The median time to progression was 9.4 months for patients in the maintenance-therapy group and 3.2 months for patients in the observation group (P less than 0.001). After reinduction therapy, the median time to progression was 3.5 months. The median length of survival from the time of initial therapy was 14.8 months for all 250 patients; it was 21.1 months for the 71 patients in the maintenance-therapy group and 19.6 months for the 74 patients in the observation group (P = 0.67). Maintenance therapy was the most important determinant of the time before progression (P less than 0.001), but it was not associated with prolonged survival. The changes in performance status were similar in the patients in both groups, but nausea, vomiting, and mucositis were significantly more frequent in the maintenance-therapy group.
Conclusions: In patients with breast cancer who received induction chemotherapy for 18 weeks, subsequent continuous chemotherapy was associated with a significant prolongation of the time before progression as compared with those receiving no further therapy; overall survival, however, was not significantly different in the two groups.