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Breast Cancer in Limited-Resource Countries: An Overview of the Breast Health Global Initiative 2005 Guidelines


Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Benjamin O. Anderson, MD, Department of Surgery, Box 356410, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA, or e-mail:


Abstract:  Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related death among women worldwide, with case fatality rates highest in low-resource countries. Despite significant scientific advances in its management, most of the world faces resource constraints that limit the capacity to improve early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of the disease. The Breast Health Global Initiative (BHGI) strives to develop evidence-based, economically feasible, and culturally appropriate guidelines that can be used in nations with limited health care resources to improve breast cancer outcomes. Using an evidence-based consensus panel process, four BHGI expert panels addressed the areas of early detection and access to care, diagnosis and pathology, treatment and resource allocation, and health care systems and public policy as they relate to breast health care in limited-resource settings. To update and expand on the BHGI Guidelines published in 2003, the 2005 BHGI panels outlined a stepwise, systematic approach to health care improvement using a tiered system of resource allotment into four levels—basic, limited, enhanced, and maximal—based on the contribution of each resource toward improving clinical outcomes. Early breast cancer detection improves outcome in a cost-effective fashion assuming treatment is available, but requires public education to foster active patient participation in diagnosis and treatment. Clinical breast examination combined with diagnostic breast imaging (ultrasound ± diagnostic mammography) can facilitate cost-effective tissue sampling techniques for cytologic or histologic diagnosis. Breast-conserving treatment with partial mastectomy and radiation therapy requires more health care resources and infrastructure than mastectomy, but can be provided in a thoughtfully designed limited-resource setting. The availability and administration of systemic therapies are critical to improving breast cancer survival. Estrogen receptor testing allows patient selection for hormonal treatments (tamoxifen, oophorectomy). Chemotherapy, which requires some allocation of resources and infrastructure, is needed to treat node-positive, locally advanced breast cancers, which represent the most common clinical presentation of disease in low-resource countries. When chemotherapy is not available, patients with locally advanced, hormone receptor-negative cancers can only receive palliative therapy. Future research is needed to better determine how these guidelines can best be implemented in limited-resource settings.

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