Is This the Most Controversial Issue in Early Breast Cancer Tx?

Liam Davenport

March 25, 2022

Is this the most controversial topic in breast oncology? Quite likely: the results of a recent online poll that show split votes and no consensus.

The topic is the use of chemotherapy for premenopausal women with early-stage hormone receptor–positive (HR+), human epidermal growth factor receptor 2–negative (HER2-) breast cancer.

Is the use of chemo in this patient population merely a "graceless" means of achieving ovarian function suppression, as one expert argued in a recent debate?

Or does it offer a distinct cytotoxic benefit, as the other expert countered?

The debate was held during the recent San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS), at which new results were presented that increased the controversy.

The controversy had arisen the previous year over results from the RxPONDER trial, as reported at the time by Medscape Medical News.

Five-year follow-up data from RxPONDER showed that adding chemotherapy to endocrine therapy did not improve outcomes over endocrine therapy alone for postmenopausal women with low-risk, node-positive HR+, HER2- breast cancer. This suggests that older women with early-stage breast cancer may safely forgo chemotherapy.

However, the same trial included premenopausal women with the same disease profile, and the results in this subgroup showed that there was benefit from chemotherapy, with a 5-year invasive disease-free survival (IDFS) rate of 94.2%, vs 89.0% for endocrine therapy alone (P = .0004).

The results were immediately controversial.

Some experts suggested the effect was due to the chemotherapy incidentally causing ovarian suppression, not the cytotoxic effect of the drugs on cancer cells. These experts were skeptical about the suggestion that chemotherapy works differently in premenopausal women than it does in postmenopausal women.

Some clinicians feel the lack of clarity creates an opportunity for greater discussion with women when making the treatment decision.

"When I have this conversation with patients, it's really nuanced," Stephanie L. Graff, MD, director of breast oncology, Lifespan Cancer Institute, Providence, Rhode Island, told Medscape Medical News.

"I would choose chemotherapy for myself, but I'm a chemotherapy doctor, so I'm very comfortable with these medications and their side effects, and I am also very familiar with the slow burn of the side effects of endocrine therapy," she said.

But for patients who are hearing their options for the first time, the idea of chemotherapy "feels scary," and there is "a lot of stigma" associated with it, she commented.

Ultimately, she believes in offering patients as much information as possible, inasmuch as "knowledge is power."

For Graff, the message from RxPONDER was that, in premenopausal patients with lymph node positive, HR+ breast cancer, "all comers benefited from chemotherapy.

"And so if the goal is to be maximally aggressive and optimally lower your risk of distant recurrence, which is a life-threatening event, chemotherapy should offered."

But chemotherapy comes with side effects and so it's an important conversation to have with patients; RxPONDER showed that the absolute difference in the rate of distant recurrence with chemotherapy was relatively minor, she added.

Debate Rages On

The debate at SABCS was moderated by Harold J. Burstein, MD, PhD, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts, who commented that if this was "a compelling question last week in clinic, it has now become red hot."

At the meeting, held in December 2021, new longer-term data from the SOFT and TEXT clinical trials were presented showing that ovarian suppression with tamoxifen plus an aromatase inhibitor provides a greater reduction in long-term risk of recurrence than tamoxifen alone.

Moreover, updated results from RxPONDER presented at the same session revealed that chemoendocrine therapy was associated with longer IDFS and distant relapse-free survival than endocrine therapy alone for women with one to three positive lymph nodes and a recurrence score of 25 or lower on the Oncotype DX (Genomic Health) 21-gene breast cancer assay.

Burstein said the debate over the use of chemotherapy in premenopausal women "is the most interesting question right now in early-stage breast cancer."

The debate focused on the effect of chemotherapy in these patients ― was it all down to ovarian function suppression?

Yes, argued Michael Gnant, MD, from the Medical University of Vienna, Austria.

Data from "modern adjuvant chemotherapy trials" suggest that chemo offers a 2% to 3% benefit in distant disease-free survival at 5 years for premenopausal women, he noted. But the effect is much larger with ovarian function suppression via endocrine therapy, which provides 5-year disease-free and overall survival benefits of 9% to 13%.

Older studies have shown that the benefit with chemotherapy is seen only in women who experience amenorrhea with the cytotoxic drugs, Gnant noted.

"In short, if you give adjuvant chemotherapy and you induce amenorrhea, then there is going to be a survival difference," he said. "But if you give adjuvant chemotherapy and there is no amenorrhea, there won't be an outcome difference."

The ABSCG-05 trial, which compared endocrine therapy with chemotherapy, showed that "in the presence of optimal endocrine adjuvant treatment, adjuvant chemotherapy doesn't add anything, because you have already achieved the effect of treatment-induced amenorrhea."

So Gnant argued that the effect of chemotherapy in RxPONDER was due to ovarian function suppression.

But the real question is: "What does it mean for clinical practice?"

Gnant asserted that for the "large group of lower-risk premenopausal patients, tamoxifen will be good enough," while those at moderate or intermediate risk should receive ovarian function suppression with either tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor, with the choice dictated by their adverse effects.

Chemotherapy "is just a graceless method of ovarian function suppression and should only be given to high-risk patients and to patients with endocrine nonresponsive disease," he argued.

On the other side of the debate, Sibylle Loibl, MD, PhD, from the Centre of Hematology and Oncology, Bethanien, Frankfurt, Germany, argued that the effect is not all due to ovarian function suppression and that chemotherapy also has a cytotoxic effect in these patients.

"We need chemotherapy" because "cancer in young women is biologically different," she asserted.

Loibl pointed to data currently awaiting publication in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that suggest that younger women have "higher immune gene expression" that may make them more chemotherapy sensitive, and lower expression of hormone receptor genes, which "could make them less endocrine sensitive."

She also cited data from a 2015 study from her own group that showed that pathologic complete response rates to neoadjuvant chemotherapy were higher in younger women with HR+, HER2- breast cancer, indicating a direct effect of chemotherapy on the disease, and that age was an important prognostic factor.

The data on the induction of amenorrhea by chemotherapy is also not as clearcut as it seems, she commented. Chemotherapy does not achieve 100% amenorrhea, and gonadotropin-releasing hormone analogues are unable to suppress ovarian function in 20% of women.

Loibl concluded that the "chemotherapy effect is there, it is higher in young women with HR+, HER2- breast cancer," and that the effect has two components.

"There is a direct cytotoxic effect which cannot be neglected, and there is an endocrine effect on the ovarian function suppression," she argued.

"I think both are needed in young premenopausal patients," she added.

Audience Responses

After the debate, the audience was polled on what effect they thought chemotherapy was having in lower-risk HR+, HER2- breast cancer patients. About two thirds responded that it was all or mostly due to ovarian function suppression.

However, the next question split the audience. They were presented with a clinical scenario: a 43-year-old woman with a mammographically detected 1.4-cm, intermediate grade, HR+, HER2- breast cancer who also had metastatic disease in one of three sentinel lymph nodes and whose recurrence score was 13.

When asked about the treatment plan they would choose for this patient, the audience was split over whether to opt for chemoendocrine therapy or endocrine therapy alone.

A similar clinical question was posited recently on Twitter, when Angela Toss, MD, PhD, from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy, asked respondents which they would chose from among three options.

From the 815 votes that were cast, 46% chose Oncotype DX testing to determine the likely benefit of chemotherapy, 48% chose chemotherapy, and 6% picked ovarian function suppression and an aromatase inhibitor.

In response, Paolo Tarantino, MD, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, commented: "If you had any doubt of which is the most controversial topic in breast oncology, doubt no more.

"815 votes, no consensus."

Approcahed for comment, Eric Winer, MD, director of the Yale Cancer Center, New Haven, Connecticut, said that the data from RxPONDER "in many ways was helpful, created about as many questions as it answered, if not more."

Because the results showed a benefit from chemotherapy for premenopausal women but not for postmenopausal women with breast cancer, Winer told Medscape Medical News that one of the outstanding questions is "whether premenopausal women are fundamentally different from postmenopausal women,...and my answer to that is that is very unlikely."

Winer added that the "real tragedy" of this trial was that it did not include women with more than three positive nodes, particularly those who have a low recurrence score, he said.

Clinicians are therefore left either "extrapolating" data from those with fewer nodes or "marching down a path that we've taken for years of just giving those people chemotherapy routinely," even though there may be no benefit, Winer commented.

Another expert who was approached for comment had a different take on the data. Matteo Lambertini, MD, IRCCS Ospedale Policlinico San Martino, Genoa, Italy, agreed with Loibl's argument that chemotherapy has a cytotoxic effect in premenopausal women with HR+, HER2- breast cancer in addition to its effect on ovarian function suppression.

He did not agree, however, that there is a question mark over what to do for patients with more than three positive lymph nodes.

Lambertini told Medscape Medical News that he thinks "too much" trust is placed in genomic testing and that there is a "risk of forgetting about all the other factors that we normally use to make our treatment choices."

A patient with five positive nodes will benefit from chemotherapy, "even if she had a very low recurrence score," he said, "because there is a very high clinical risk of disease recurrence," and chemotherapy "is of benefit" in these situations, he asserted.

Lambertini said that the RxPONDER results ― and also studies such as TAILORx, which demonstrated the ability of Oncotype DX to identify which patients with early breast cancer could skip chemotherapy ― show that "chemotherapy has a role to play" and that most patients should receive it.

He suggested, however, that "probably the benefit of chemotherapy is smaller" in real life than was seen in these trials, because in the trials, they did not use optimal adjuvant endocrine therapy.

Treating Individual Patients

When it comes to making treatment decisions for individual patients, Winer said he has a "conversation with people about what the results of the study showed and what I believe that they need."

For patients whose Oncotype DX score is in the "very low range, I do not recommend chemotherapy," he said, preferring instead to use endocrine therapy for ovarian function suppression.

For women with a more intermediate score, "I explain that I don't think we have an answer and that if they would want to take the most traditional and conservative path, it would be to get chemotherapy.

"But I'm certainly not rigid about my recommendations, and I'm particularly open" to ovarian function suppression for a premenopausal woman with an Onctyope DX score of 20 and two positive nodes who does not have "other adverse features.

"Ultimately, what pushes me in one direction or another," Winer said, aside from number of positive nodes or the size of the tumor, "is the patient's preferences."

This was a theme taken up by Kim Sabelko, PhD, vice-president of scientific strategy and programs at Susan G. Komen, Dallas, Texas.

The results from RxPONDER and similar studies are "really interesting," as researchers are "working out how to individualize treatment," and that it is not a matter of "one size fits all."

"We need to understand when to use chemotherapy and other drugs, and more importantly, when not to, because we don't want to overtreat people who don't necessarily need these drugs," she commented.

Sabelko emphasized that treatment decisions "should be shared" between the patient and their doctor, and she noted that there "will be some people who are going to refuse chemotherapy for different reasons."

These clinical trial results help clinicians to explain the risks and benefits of treatment options, but the treatment decision should be taken "together" with the patient, she emphasized.

Gnant has relationships with Sandoz, Amge, Daiichi Sankyo, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Nanostring, Novartis, Pierre Fabre, TLC Pharmaceuticals, Life Brain. Loibl has relationships with AbbVie, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Celgene, Daiichi Sankyo, Eirgenix, GSK, Gilead, Lilly, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, Pierre Fabre, Medscape, Puma, Roche, Samsung, Seagen, VM Scope, and GBG Forschungs.

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