Childhood Radiation Treatment Increases Breast Cancer Risk

By Amir Khan on June 5, 2012 10:54 AM EDT

Radiation Therapy
A radiation therapy machine (Photo: Creative Commons)

Women who are treated with radiation for childhood cancers are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer as they age, according to new research presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago on Monday. Researchers found that even if treated with a very low dose of radiation, the risk of developing breast cancer is much higher.

"We were surprised to find that women treated with radiation to the chest during childhood have a risk of developing breast cancer that is comparable to that of women who are carriers of the hereditary BRCA mutations," Dr. Chaya Moskowitz, a researcher at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, told WebMD.

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Approximately 31 percent of women with the BRCA gene mutation will develop cancer by age 50, according to the National Cancer Institute -- cancer -- much higher than the 4 percent of the general population who develops cancer.

Researchers analyzed date from over 1,200 patients and found that by age 50, 30 percent of women treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma as a child developed breast cancer.

"These are rather striking data," Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang, a researcher with the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada in Las Vegas, who was not part of the research, told WebMD. "We have an obligation to those many thousands and thousands of young women we treated years ago. Hopefully this will increase our awareness of [the] need for mammogram screening of this population."

Previous studies indicated a higher risk of breast cancer in women treated for childhood cancer, but this research is the first to establish how much higher the risk is, according to study.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that women treated with 20 grays -- a radiation dosage measurement -- or more begin annual mammograms starting at age 25.  But according to the study, women receiving as little as 10 grays are at a higher risk and should get earlier mammograms as well.

Approximately 50,000 women in the U.S. have been treated with 20 grays or higher, and an additional 7,000 to 9,000 have been exposed to 10 to 19 grays, according to WebMD.

Experts said understanding the risk childhood cancer treatments bring is paramount to better treating the next generation. Over the past few years, the amount of grays given to patients has decreased.

"We need to know how to take care of survivors and change childhood cancer therapies, so this doesn't happen to the next group of survivors," Lisa Diller, a researcher at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who was not involved in the research, told the Detroit Free Press. "Children treated for Hodgkin lymphoma today are treated with therapies that try to maintain the excellent cure rates but use as little radiation as possible."

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