ESMO Gets Creative With Guidelines for Breast Cancer Care in the COVID-19 Era

Alan P. Lyss, MD


April 30, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

ESMO's breast cancer guidelines expand upon guidelines issued by other groups, addressing a broad spectrum of patient profiles and providing a creative array of treatment options in COVID-19–era clinical practice.

As with ESMO's other disease-focused COVID-19 guidelines, the breast cancer guidelines are organized by priority levels – high, medium, and low – which are applied to several domains of diagnosis and treatment.

High-priority recommendations apply to patients whose condition is either clinically unstable or whose cancer burden is immediately life-threatening.

Medium-priority recommendations apply to patients for whom delaying care beyond 6 weeks would probably lower the likelihood of a significant benefit from the intervention.

Low-priority recommendations apply to patients for whom services can be delayed for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Personalized Care and High-Priority Situations

ESMO's guidelines suggest that multidisciplinary tumor boards should guide decisions about the urgency of care for individual patients, given the complexity of breast cancer biology, the multiplicity of evidence-based treatments, and the possibility of cure or durable high-quality remissions.

The guidelines deliver a clear message that prepandemic discussions about delivering personalized care are even more important now.

ESMO prioritizes investigating high-risk screening mammography results (i.e., BIRADS 5), lumps noted on breast self-examination, clinical evidence of local-regional recurrence, and breast cancer in pregnant women.

Making these scenarios “high priority” will facilitate the best long-term outcomes in time-sensitive scenarios and improve patient satisfaction with care.

Modifications to Consider

ESMO provides explicit options for treatment of common breast cancer profiles in which short-term modifications of standard management strategies can safely be considered. Given the generally long natural history of most breast cancer subtypes, these temporary modifications are unlikely to compromise long-term outcomes.

For patients with a new diagnosis of localized breast cancer, the guidelines recommend neoadjuvant chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or hormonal therapy to achieve optimal breast cancer outcomes and safely delay surgery or radiotherapy.

In the metastatic setting, ESMO advises providers to consider:

  • Symptom-oriented testing, recognizing the arguable benefit of frequent imaging or serum tumor marker measurement.

  • Drug holidays, de-escalated maintenance therapy, and protracted schedules of bone-modifying agents.

  • Avoiding mTOR and PI3KCA inhibitors as an addition to standard hormonal therapy because of pneumonitis, hyperglycemia, and immunosuppression risks. The guidelines suggest careful thought about adding CDK4/6 inhibitors to standard hormonal therapy because of the added burden of remote safety monitoring with the biologic agents.

ESMO makes suggestions about trimming the duration of adjuvant trastuzumab to 6 months, as in the PERSEPHONE study, and modifying the schedule of luteinizing hormone–releasing hormone agonist administration, in an effort to reduce patient exposure to health care personnel (and vice versa).

The guidelines recommend continuing clinical trials if benefits to patients outweigh risks and trials can be modified to enhance patient safety while preserving study endpoint evaluations.

Lower-Priority Situations

ESMO pointedly assigns a low priority to follow-up of patients who are at high risk of relapse but lack signs or symptoms of relapse.

Like other groups, ESMO recommends that patients with equivocal (i.e., BIRADS 3) screening mammograms should have 6-month follow-up imaging in preference to immediate core needle biopsy of the area(s) of concern.

ESMO uses age to assign priority for postponing adjuvant breast radiation in patients with low- to moderate-risk lesions. However, the guidelines stop surprisingly short of recommending that adjuvant radiation be withheld for older patients with low-risk, stage I, hormonally sensitive, HER2-negative breast cancers who receive endocrine therapy.

Bottom Line

The pragmatic adjustments ESMO suggests address the challenges of evaluating and treating breast cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidelines protect each patient's right to care and safety as well as protecting the safety of caregivers.

The guidelines will likely heighten patients' satisfaction with care and decrease concern about adequacy of timely evaluation and treatment.

Dr. Lyss was a community-based medical oncologist and clinical researcher for more than 35 years before his recent retirement. His clinical and research interests were focused on breast and lung cancers as well as expanding clinical trial access to medically underserved populations. He is based in St. Louis. He has no conflicts of interest.

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