Objective: To evaluate the effectiveness of early detection of intrathoracic and bone metastases in reducing mortality in breast cancer patients.
Design: Randomized clinical trial allocating breast cancer patients to two alternative follow-up protocols (intensive vs clinical) for at least 5 years.
Setting: Twelve breast clinics (referral centers) in different areas in Italy.
Patients: A total of 1243 consecutive patients (either premenopausal or postmenopausal) surgically treated for unilateral invasive breast carcinoma with no evidence of metastases. The two study groups were well balanced in terms of clinical and prognostic characteristics.
Intervention: Patients in both treatment groups had physical examination and mammography, while patients of the intensive follow-up group had, in addition, chest roentgenography and bone scan every 6 months.
Main outcome measures: Vital status at 5 years was the main outcome; information was available for all except five patients (0.4%). Relapse-free survival was also analyzed.
Results: Overall, 393 recurrences (104 local and 289 distant) were observed during the study. Increased detection of isolated intrathoracic and bone metastases was evident in the intensive follow-up group compared with the clinical follow-up group (112 vs 71 cases), while no difference was observed for other sites and for local and/or regional recurrences. The 5-year relapse-free survival rate was significantly higher for the clinical follow-up group, with patients in the intensive follow-up group showing earlier detection of recurrences. No difference in 5-year overall mortality (18.6% vs 19.5%) was observed between the two follow-up groups.
Conclusions: Periodic chest roentgenography and bone scan allow earlier detection of distant metastases, but anticipated diagnosis appears to be the only effect of intensive follow-up, and no impact on prognosis is evident after 5 years. Periodic intensive follow-up with chest roentgenography and bone scan should not be recommended as a routine policy.