Want to Save Time and Money on Radiation? Just Ask.

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • A shorter, less expensive, just as effective course of radiation treatment is available for breast cancer survivors, yet many U.S. women aren’t being offered this easier treatment. Why not?


    Hypofractionated whole breast irradiation.


    If you’re one of the approximately 140,000 to 160,000 American women facing radiation treatment for early-stage breast cancer this year, keep those words in mind. 


    They just may save you a lot of time. And save your insurance company $3,000 to $4,000 – which could help translate to fewer premium increases in the future.


    It’s been three years since the American Society for Radiation Oncology endorsed a shorter, more intensive course of radiation for breast cancer treatment – hypofractionated whole breast irradiation – in women over 50 with early-stage breast cancer. While the standard course of radiation for women in this group had typically been 5 to 7 weeks (25 to 35 treatments), the Society used the results of four large studies to recommend a shorter, 3-week treatment, saying it was just as effective and less costly.

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    Works just as well? Costs less? Takes less time? Sounds like a win-win-win.  


    In fact, last year the Society made shorter radiation treatments for breast cancer patients the top priority in its Choosing Wisely campaign, which advocates for the reduction of unnecessary medical treatments. 


    But a paper published in the online Journal of the American Medical Association this week demonstrates just how little progress has been made in adopting these new standards. Only about 35% of eligible women received this shorter treatment – meaning the significant majority are spending more money and time on cancer treatment than they need to.


    Meanwhile, up to 80% of breast cancer patients outside the U.S. are now receiving this shortened course of treatment. Why the disparity? 


    First, unlike many other countries, there are plenty of radiation facilities available here, and thus gaining access to a longer course of treatment isn’t a problem. There’s also a financial incentive – the additional $3,000 to $4,000 per patient for the longer treatment isn’t insignificant.


    Finally, some doctors, particularly in less developed areas of the country, feel uncomfortable changing a standard of treatment that’s always worked well. 


    If you’re facing radiation, and the hassle and expense of having a daily treatment for up to 7 weeks, ask your oncologist about hypofractionated WBI. If s/he doesn’t recommend it, ask why not. If you don’t like the answer – see if you can access another treatment center. This may be one of those occasions when aggressive self-advocacy pays off, in both time and money.




    Bekelman, J. (2014, December 10). Hypofractionated vs Conventional Whole Breast Irradiation. Retrieved December 11, 2014, from http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2020542


    Shute, N. (2014, December 10). Doctors Lag In Adopting Cheaper, Faster Radiation For Breast Cancer. Retrieved December 11, 2014, from http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/12/10/369639080/doctors-slow-to-adopt-cheaper-faster-radiation-for-breast-cancer

Published On: December 11, 2014