Is chemotherapy overused? Debate grows in medical community

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There is a growing debate within the medical cancer community about chemotherapy.

There is a growing debate within the medical cancer community about chemotherapy, whether it has been over-used, and whether the benefits to shrink patients' tumors outweigh the painful side effects. But there are no simple answers.

Three years ago, 36-year-old Jenifer Briley, herself a nurse, wife, and the mother of two daughters, was diagnosed with stage three inflammatory breast cancer, which has just a 40 percent survival rate over five years. She started chemo, then radiation to shrink the tumors and stop the spread of cancer.

"I believe the chemo's the only reason I'm still alive. If I hadn't had it, my chances were zero," Briley said.

The chemo controlled the metastasis and shrank the tumor enough so that Briley got a double mastectomy to remove all the cancer.

Philip Kovoor, MD, an oncologist at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center said, "It helps us to do less surgery; it helps us to clear margins and remove all cancer, and it also helps us to go after any seeds, cancer that may have spread."

Since genetic and other risk factors play a role in the development of cancer, some experts say the older approach to chemo may have been too much. Some oncologists believe the toxicity and side effects such as hair loss, nausea, and pain may be more severe than the benefit in some cases.

"I'm alive, so I don't know what's more severe than being dead," Briley stated.

Dr. Kovoor said, "And, I would say from ten years ago to now, we have been smarter, and I use less chemotherapy than I did ten years ago."

Based on the evidence and the results, Dr. Kovoor believes Briley made the right choice. She's showing no signs of cancer.

"I want the 50 years," Briley said. "I don't care about the five months of hard, not at all. I would do it again, in a heartbeat. Wouldn't think twice."

While the medical community decides which patients benefit most from chemotherapy, it has clearly saved and extended lives. Patients should consult with their own doctors before making decisions.

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