Post-mastectomy radiotherapy for women with early breast cancer and one to three positive lymph nodes.
BACKGROUND: Continual improvement in adjuvant therapies has resulted in a better prognosis for women diagnosed with breast cancer. A surrogate marker used to detect the spread of disease after treatment of breast cancer is local and regional recurrence. The risk of local and regional recurrence after mastectomy increases with the number of axillary lymph nodes affected by cancer. There is a consensus to use radiotherapy as an adjuvant treatment after mastectomy (postmastectomy radiotherapy (PMRT)) in women diagnosed with breast cancer and found to have disease in four or more positive axillary lymph nodes. Despite data showing almost double the risk of local and regional recurrence in women treated with mastectomy and found to have one to three positive lymph nodes, there is a lack of international consensus on the use of PMRT in this group. OBJECTIVES: To assess the effects of PMRT in women diagnosed with early breast cancer and found to have one to three positive axillary lymph nodes. SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Breast Cancer Group's Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, the World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) and ClinicalTrials.gov up to 24 September 2021. SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs). The inclusion criteria included women diagnosed with breast cancer treated with simple or modified radical mastectomy and axillary surgery (sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) alone or those undergoing axillary lymph node clearance with or without prior SLNB). We included only women receiving PMRT using X-rays (electron and photon radiation), and we defined the radiotherapy dose to reflect what is currently being recommended (i.e. 40 Gray (Gy) to 50 Gy in 15 to 25/28 fractions in 3 to 5 weeks. The included studies did not administer any boost to the tumour bed. In this review, we excluded studies using neoadjuvant chemotherapy as a supportive treatment before surgery. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used Covidence to screen records. We collected data on tumour characteristics, adjuvant treatments and the outcomes of local and regional recurrence, overall survival, disease-free survival, time to progression, short- and long-term adverse events and quality of life. We reported on time-to-event outcome measures using the hazard ratio (HR) and subdistribution HR. We used Cochrane's risk of bias tool (RoB 1), and we presented overall certainty of the evidence using the GRADE approach. MAIN RESULTS: The RCTs included in this review were subgroup analyses of original RCTs conducted in the 1980s to assess the effectiveness of PMRT. Hence, the type and duration of adjuvant systemic treatments used in the studies included in this review were suboptimal compared to the current standard of care. The review involved three RCTs with a total of 829 women diagnosed with breast cancer and low-volume axillary disease. Amongst the included studies, only a single study pertained to the modern-day radiotherapy practice. The results from this one study showed a reduction of local and regional recurrence (HR 0.20, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.13 to 0.33, 1 study, 522 women; low-certainty evidence) and improvement in overall survival with PMRT (HR 0.76, 95% CI 0.60 to 0.97, 1 study, 522 women; moderate-certainty evidence). One of the other studies using radiotherapy techniques that do not reflect modern-day practice reported on disease-free survival in women with low-volume axillary disease (subdistribution HR 0.63, 95% CI 0.41 to 0.96, 1 study, 173 women). None of the included studies reported on PMRT side effects or quality-of-life outcome measures. AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Based on one study, the use of PMRT in women diagnosed with breast cancer and low-volume axillary disease indicated a reduction in locoregional recurrence and an improvement in survival. There is a need for more research to be conducted using modern-day radiotherapy equipment and methods to support and supplement the review findings.