Background: The longest interval between primary treatment of breast cancer and tumor recurrence, i.e., the limit of breast cancer dormancy, defines the appropriate length of follow-up, the effectiveness of treatment, and curability (no excess mortality risk for patients relative to the general population) for the disease. To determine this limit, we analyzed long-term follow-up data from patients who underwent a radical mastectomy during a four-decade period at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
Methods: For 1547 patients operated on during the period from 1945 through mid-1987, the number of recurrences and deaths occurring within each postoperative year were tabulated, and the hazard rate for first recurrence or death from breast cancer was estimated by use of the actuarial method. The excess mortality rate was calculated for successive 5-year intervals, beginning at the time of mastectomy, by use of U.S. life tables and matching on the basis of age, race, and sex.
Results: Most recurrences occurred within the first 10 years after mastectomy. Recurrences were rare after 20 years; only one recurrence was reported among 192 patients followed for 26-45 years. Patients who had a recurrence within 5 years following mastectomy had shorter subsequent survival times than those whose recurrence appeared after 5 years (two-sided P = .0001). The excess death rate increased with pathologic stage of the primary tumor. Overall, there was evidence of excess mortality up to 20 years postsurgery (two-sided P = .009).
Conclusions: The limit of breast cancer dormancy in this patient population appears to be between 20 and 25 years. After this time, recurrences were rare, and the mortality rate was no longer statistically significantly different from that of the general population. Patients surviving to this time without evidence of recurrence or contralateral breast cancer are probably cured.