If you're diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, along with the horror and fear comes a slim silver lining of relief: when caught soon enough, this disease can usually be cured. Now scientists have another tool for early breast cancer detection, one that suggests an answer to a key question: which early cancers will spread and which will remain localized.
Researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have been studying circulating tumor cells (CTCs). Earlier research has demonstrated that in metastatic breast cancer (the kind that has already spread), the prognosis is poor when CTCs are detected in the blood.
The newest research, just published in The Lancet Oncology, looks at early stage breast cancer. In the group of women they examined, 24% had circulating tumor cells. Fifteen percent of these patients had a recurrence and 10 percent died during the four years of the study. By contrast, three percent of the patients who didn't show CTCs relapsed and two percent of these women died.
Larger studies are needed to confirm these findings, but it is exciting news that a simple blood test may be employed one day to distinguish between truly local cancer and more dangerous early-stage cancer that may merit more aggressive treatment. We've long known that early breast cancer detection is key to survival, and this could give doctors an important new measure in determining treatment.