SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- Tens of thousands of women each year might be able to skip at least some of the grueling treatments for breast cancer - which can include surgery, heavy chemo and radiation - without greatly harming their odds of survival, new research suggests.
The research is aimed at curbing overtreatment, a big problem in cancer care. Treatments help many women beat the disease, but giving too many or ones that aren't really needed causes unnecessary expense, trauma and lifelong side effects, such as arm swelling and heart troubles. Radiation can even raise the risk of new cancers.
Several studies presented Wednesday at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, an international conference on the disease, identify groups of patients who might be able to safely forgo certain treatments.
One found that many older women can skip radiation after surgery for early-stage tumors. Two others suggest that surgery may not help patients whose cancer has already spread widely. A fourth study tested a "light chemo" combination that could become a new standard of care.
The trend is "less and less therapy" for certain cancer types, said one conference leader, Dr. C. Kent Osborne of Baylor College of Medicine.
Breast cancer is already widely spread in 5 to 20 percent of newly diagnosed patients, and at that point is usually incurable. The main treatment is chemotherapy or hormone treatments that attack cancer throughout the body. Sometimes doctors also remove the breast tumor in hope of prolonging survival, but this has not been put to a hard test.
Dr. Rajendra Badwe, director of the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, India, led a study of 350 women with widely spread cancers that had shrunk after initial chemotherapy. Half were given surgery to remove the breast or the lump plus any cancerous lymph nodes. The rest did not have surgery.
After about two years, 40 percent of both groups were alive, suggesting that medicines are enough and that these women can be spared the ordeal of having all or part of a breast removed.
A second study by Dr. Atilla Soran of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center of nearly 300 women in Turkey also suggests surgery is not helping, though there were hints that some groups did better or worse. Surgery seemed to help if cancer had spread just to bone, and it appeared to do harm if it had spread to the liver or lungs.
"These are incredibly important, big-deal studies," said Dr. Claudine Isaacs, a breast specialist at Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Many doctors jumped on earlier, less rigorous studies and advised women to have surgery, and this should be a warning against that, she said.
The results also may spur interest in a U.S. study on the topic. Dr. Seema Khan of Northwestern University in Chicago has had so much trouble recruiting participants that she lowered her goal and may not be able to answer the question.
"There's a huge amount of bias" among doctors and patients about what is best, she said.
Most breast cancers are found at an early stage, and many women are treated with surgery followed by hormones or chemotherapy, plus radiation. But cancer medicines have gotten so good at lowering the risk of a recurrence that doctors wonder whether the radiation is still needed. It can cause heart and other problems, especially in older women, and three or four weeks of daily treatments can be a burden.
Dr. Ian Kunkler of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland led a study of 1,326 patients 65 or older with early-stage cancers whose growth was driven by hormones. This is the most common form of the disease and the age group that accounts for most cases. Half were given radiation and half skipped it.
After five years, roughly 96 percent of both groups were alive, and most deaths were not from breast cancer. About 1 percent of those given radiation had cancer recur in the treated breast versus 4 percent of those who skipped radiation.
For every 100 women given radiation, "one will have a recurrence anyway, four will have a recurrence prevented, but 95 will have had unnecessary treatment," Kunkler said. Since radiation did not affect survival or the risk of cancer spreading, skipping it "is a reasonable option."
Doctors are unsure how to treat women with small tumors involving the gene that the drug Herceptin targets. Those tumors are low risk because they're still confined to the breast, but high risk because the gene is thought to make them more aggressive. Some women get heavy-duty chemo, including drugs that can damage the heart.
Dr. Eric Winer of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston led a study of 406 women given "light chemo" - paclitaxel plus Herceptin for 12 weeks, followed by nine months of Herceptin alone. More than three years later, only four had cancer recur in the same breast, and two had recurrences in other places.
"This is likely to become a new standard," Winer said.
The cancer conference is sponsored by the American Association for Cancer Research, Baylor and the UT Health Science Center.
Marilynn Marchione can be followed at HTTP://TWITTER.COM/MMARCHIONEAP
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The slow rollout of a new federal health insurance marketplace may be deepening differences in health coverage among Americans, with residents in some states gaining insurance at a far greater rate than others.
The demarcation may be as simple as Democrat and Republican.
Newly released federal figures show more people are picking private insurance plans or being routed to Medicaid programs in states with Democratic leaders who have fully embraced the federal health care law than in states where Republican elected officials have derisively rejected what they call "Obamacare."
On one side of the political divide are a dozen mostly Democratic leaning states, including California, Minnesota and New York. They have both expanded Medicaid for lower-income adults and started their own health insurance exchanges for people to shop for federally subsidized private insurance.
On the other side are two dozen conservative states, such as Texas, Florida and Missouri. They have both rejected the Medicaid expansion and refused any role in running an online insurance exchange, leaving that entirely to the federal government.
The new federal figures, providing a state-by-state breakdown of enrollment in the new health care program through November, showed that the political differences among leaders over the initiative are turning into differences in participation among the uninsured.
Even though many conservative states have higher levels of poverty and more people without health coverage, fewer of them may receive new insurance, said Dylan Roby, an assistant public health professor at the Center for Health Policy Research at the University of California, Los Angeles.
With the patchwork implementation of the federal health care law, "the gap will exacerbate," Roby said
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department reported this week that 364,682 people had signed up for private coverage through the new health insurance marketplaces as of Nov. 30 and an additional 803,077 had been determined eligible for Medicaid.
But the rate of residents gaining health coverage was more than three times as great in the states embracing the federal health care law than in those whose leaders have resisted it.
In the dozen states embracing the overhaul, more than 50 percent of those who applied for coverage picked an insurance plan or were eligible for Medicaid. That rate was barely 15 percent in the two dozen states that aren't cooperating in the implementation of the federal health care law.
"It's very frustrating," said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who voted for the federal law only to see it twice rebuffed in a statewide vote and repeatedly rejected by her home state's Republican-led state Legislature.
"The political point has trumped the services that Missourians need," McCaskill said.
In Texas, which has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the U.S., the GOP-controlled state Legislature opted not to create a state-run insurance marketplace and Republican Gov. Rick Perry also declined to expand Medicaid to cover more of the working poor. As of the end of November, just 14,000 Texans had signed up for insurance through the federally run marketplace and fewer than 17,000 of the nearly 245,000 applicants on the exchange had been determined to be eligible for Medicaid.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said he nonetheless remains optimistic about the meager numbers.
"To know that there are people who, despite those odds, are still enrolling is encouraging," Fischer said.
In California, which also has a high uninsured rate, more than 107,000 people had picked an insurance plan through the state-run marketplace as of the end of November, and nearly 182,000 others had been determined eligible for Medicaid. That means nearly two-thirds of the 448,133 individuals who applied through the insurance exchange could gain some sort of coverage.
Federal grants in California have helped finance TV and radio commercials, billboards, bus signs and town hall meetings encouraging people to participate in the new health insurance marketplace.
That sort of promotion has been lacking in many of the states that have refused to run their own insurance marketplaces.
In Missouri, where a law forbids the government from implementing an insurance exchange, a coalition supporting the marketplace delayed its promotional campaign because of the technical troubles that marred the launch of the federal website.
"We didn't want to drive people to a frustrating experience," said Thomas McAuliffe, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Missouri Foundation for Health.
Now, advocates for the federal law face a steep challenge to implore people to sign up by Dec. 23, which is the deadline to be covered by health insurance policies that take effect in January.
"When we look at enrollment numbers, we're obviously going to lag behind, because in many parts of the state there's still a sense that Obamacare is not going to help me - even by the people it's going to help the most," McAuliffe said.
Heather McCabe, an assistant professor of social work at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said the low enrollment numbers in many states raise questions about whether people are turned off by the problematic website, don't know they're eligible to use the exchange or have found the policies unaffordable.
"If the answer is that people still don't understand what the exchange is and how to use it, then the answer is we need to do education and help people better access the system," she said. "But if the answer is that the premiums are too high, then we have an issue that's a little more difficult to deal with."
Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, and Rick Callahan in Indianapolis contributed to this report.