Kentucky breast cancer patients under-treated

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE)- More than 1/3rd of Kentucky women battling early stage breast cancer are not getting the radiation therapy that experts recommend. It's a follow-up to surgical treatment that reduces the risk of a recurrence by 75%. Doctors at UofL's James Graham Brown Cancer Center and UK's Markey Cancer Center uncovered the numbers and are now hard at work to change the trend.

"It's reassuring" says breast cancer patient Becky Turbeville when asked about her radiation treatments following a lumpectomy in August. She says of radiation therapy, "there's a way to increase your chances of not having to go through this again."

But too often access to radiation therapy is preventing this life-saving care. Over a ten year period from 1997 to 2007, 33% of Kentucky women in early stage disease did not receive radiation following surgical treatment. That's higher than the national average of 25 to 30%. The study consisted of 11,914 early-stage breast cancer patients who were tracked by the Kentucky Cancer Registry.

Lead Author and Radiation Oncologist at Brown Cancer Center, Dr. Anthony Dragun also found, "95% of patients who were in our study had some kind of insurance and the insurance would have paid for all of their medical care. But insurance does not cover gas. Especially when it's $4.00 a gallon and you're driving 40 miles back and forth everyday."

A traditional radiation treatment is 5 days a week for 6 weeks. At Brown Cancer Center shorter therapies are now taking just three weeks but still, Becky says the everyday travel takes a huge commitment, " I have a 30 minute drive, and it's inconvenient."

Beyond inconvenient, it's expensive so Dr. Dragun and his team are researching therapy options that will improve access even more by shortening the number of therapy sessions. He says "it will be specifically targeted to address some of these issues with patients by treating once a week for about 5 weeks." It's already available he says in Europe.

The one day a week approach may be the key to reversing the trend of under-treated in the Bluegrass. The hope is that it will make radiation therapy more available to working moms, patients with tight incomes and people who deserve the same improved chance of survival.

The study is eye opening, says Dr. Dragun, "we as physicians, we want to give the best care to our patients. We want to give them the best cancer care. But I think a lot of times we underestimate the burdens that are placed on them."

By reducing the burdens of getting to radiation treatments, the risk of recurrence is automatically reduced too.

Dr. Dragun hopes to start enrolling patients in the one-day-a-week treatment study by year's end. He says patients should also be aware there's grant money available to help with travel and hotel expenses while getting treatment.