Follow-up strategies for women treated for early breast cancer

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 May 27;2016(5):CD001768. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001768.pub3.


Background: Follow-up examinations are commonly performed after primary treatment for women with breast cancer. They are used to detect recurrences at an early (asymptomatic) stage. This is an update of a Cochrane review first published in 2000.

Objectives: To assess the effectiveness of different policies of follow-up for distant metastases on mortality, morbidity and quality of life in women treated for stage I, II or III breast cancer.

Search methods: For this 2014 review update, we searched the Cochrane Breast Cancer Group's Specialised Register (4 July 2014), MEDLINE (4 July 2014), Embase (4 July 2014), CENTRAL (2014, Issue 3), the World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (4 July 2014) and (4 July 2014). References from retrieved articles were also checked.

Selection criteria: All randomised controlled trials (RCTs) assessing the effectiveness of different policies of follow-up after primary treatment were reviewed for inclusion.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently assessed trials for eligibility for inclusion in the review and risk of bias. Data were pooled in an individual patient data meta-analysis for the two RCTs testing the effectiveness of different follow-up schemes. Subgroup analyses were conducted by age, tumour size and lymph node status.

Main results: Since 2000, one new trial has been published; the updated review now includes five RCTs involving 4023 women with breast cancer (clinical stage I, II or III).Two trials involving 2563 women compared follow-up based on clinical visits and mammography with a more intensive scheme including radiological and laboratory tests. After pooling the data, no significant differences in overall survival (hazard ratio (HR) 0.98, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.84 to 1.15, two studies, 2563 participants, high-quality evidence), or disease-free survival (HR 0.84, 95% CI 0.71 to 1.00, two studies, 2563 participants, low-quality evidence) emerged. No differences in overall survival and disease-free survival emerged in subgroup analyses according to patient age, tumour size and lymph node status before primary treatment. In 1999, 10-year follow-up data became available for one trial of these trials, and no significant differences in overall survival were found. No difference was noted in quality of life measures (one study, 639 participants, high-quality evidence).The new included trial, together with a previously included trial involving 1264 women compared follow-up performed by a hospital-based specialist versus follow-up performed by general practitioners. No significant differences were noted in overall survival (HR 1.07, 95% CI 0.64 to 1.78, one study, 968 participants, moderate-quality evidence), time to detection of recurrence (HR 1.06, 95% CI 0.76 to 1.47, two studies, 1264 participants, moderate-quality evidence), and quality of life (one study, 356 participants, high-quality evidence). Patient satisfaction was greater among patients treated by general practitioners. One RCT involving 196 women compared regularly scheduled follow-up visits versus less frequent visits restricted to the time of mammography. No significant differences emerged in interim use of telephone and frequency of general practitioners's consultations.

Authors' conclusions: This updated review of RCTs conducted almost 20 years ago suggests that follow-up programs based on regular physical examinations and yearly mammography alone are as effective as more intensive approaches based on regular performance of laboratory and instrumental tests in terms of timeliness of recurrence detection, overall survival and quality of life.In two RCTs, follow-up care performed by trained and not trained general practitioners working in an organised practice setting had comparable effectiveness to that delivered by hospital-based specialists in terms of overall survival, recurrence detection, and quality of life.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Breast Neoplasms / mortality
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Breast Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • General Practice
  • Humans
  • Mammography
  • Medical Oncology
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / diagnosis*
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / mortality
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Physical Examination
  • Quality of Life
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic