A practice-changing new clinical trial has been found to reduce long-term radiotherapy side effects in women with breast cancer.

The large-scale clinical trial, conducted by The Institute of Cancer Research and the University of Cambridge, has shown that targeting or reducing the dose of radiotherapy for women with breast cancer after surgery can substantially reduce the side effects they experience in the long-term.

Side effects from radiotherapy can range from fatigue, nausea and hair loss to heart and lung problems over time, with side effects apparently more prevalent in women who were younger, had larger breasts or if they were feeling anxious or depressed before beginning treatment.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and funded by Cancer Research UK, has already begun to change clinical practice after reporting earlier this year that the modified radiotherapy regimes were as effective as a high dose to the whole breast.

It found that fewer long-term side effects were present if treated with radiotherapy to part of the breast or at a reduced dose, than with high-dose radiation to the whole breast over the five years of the study. Further to this, over half of women involved had no side-effects at all five years after treatment.

Study co-leader Professor Judith Bliss, director of the clinical trials and statistics unit at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said of the new practice: “Improving cancer treatment isn’t only about extending life but also about making sure that people who survive cancer can live as well as possible. Our trial has shown that it is possible to safely dial back treatment so that women who have surgery for breast cancer not only have excellent survival but also the best quality of life possible.”

“We are delighted that the results of this trial are now leading to a real change in the way breast cancer patients are treated and hope it has a real benefit for their recovery. The technique used here can be carried out on standard radiotherapy machines so these results can be achieved at centres across the country and worldwide.”