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Treatment of Breast Cancer in Countries with Limited Resources


Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Robert W. Carlson, MD, Department of Medicine, Division of Oncology, 269 Campus Dr., Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA, or email:


Abstract: Early and accurate diagnosis of breast cancer is important for optimizing treatment. Local treatment of early stage breast cancer involves either mastectomy or breast-conserving surgery followed by whole-breast irradiation. The pathologic and biologic properties of a woman's breast cancer may be used to estimate her probability for recurrence of and death from breast cancer, as well as the magnitude of benefit she is likely to receive from adjuvant endocrine therapy or cytotoxic chemotherapy. Ovarian ablation or suppression with or without tamoxifen is an effective endocrine therapy in the adjuvant treatment of breast cancer in premenopausal women with estrogen receptor (ER)-positive or ER-unknown breast cancer. In postmenopausal women with ER- and/or progesterone receptor (PR)-positive or PR-unknown breast cancer, the use of tamoxifen or anastrozole is effective adjuvant endocrine therapy. The benefit of tamoxifen is additive to that of chemotherapy. Cytotoxic chemotherapy also improves recurrence rates and survival, with the magnitude of benefit decreasing with increasing age. Substantial support systems are required to optimally and safely use breast-conserving approaches to local therapy or cytotoxic chemotherapy as systemic therapy. Locally advanced breast cancer (LABC) accounts for at least half of all breast cancers in countries with limited resources and has a poor prognosis. Initial treatment of LABC with anthracycline-based chemotherapy is standard and effective. Addition of a sequential, neoadjuvant taxane thereafter increases the rate of pathologic complete responses. Neoadjuvant endocrine therapy may benefit postmenopausal women with hormone receptor-positive LABC. After an initial response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy, the use of local-regional surgery is appropriate. Most women will require a radical or modified radical mastectomy. In those women in whom mastectomy is not possible after neoadjuvant chemotherapy, the use of whole-breast and regional lymph node irradiation alone is appropriate. In those women who cannot receive neoadjuvant chemotherapy because of resource constraints, mastectomy with node dissection, when feasible, may still be considered in an attempt to achieve local-regional control. After local-regional therapy, most women should receive additional systemic chemotherapy. Women with LABC that has a positive or unknown hormone receptor status benefit from endocrine therapy with tamoxifen. The treatment of LABC requires multiple disciplines and is resource intensive. Efforts to reduce the number of breast cancers diagnosed at an advanced stage thus have the potential to improve rates of survival while decreasing the use of limited resources.