How Long Is Too Long to Wait for Breast Cancer Treatment?

Getting chemo within four months of diagnosis can help save lives.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Obviously, when you've been diagnosed with breast cancer (or any cancer for that matter), you want to act relatively quickly. Now, new research suggests there’s an optimal window for treatment.

According to a review of more than 172,000 patient records, women with breast cancer should start post-operative chemo, when recommended, within four months of their cancer diagnosis—waiting longer than that is linked to poorer survival overall. Each patient in the study had undergone surgery to remove the tumor followed by chemotherapy to kill any rogue cells, a protocol known as combination or adjuvant treatment.

Though combination treatment is the most common course of action for women with hormone-receptor negative breast cancer, few guidelines exist that recommend a specific timeframe like this, says Judy C. Boughey, M.D., a professor of surgery and vice chair of research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, and lead author of the study published in Annals of Surgical Oncology.

"Our findings confirm that timely care is important for breast cancer patients and should be considered in their treatment plan," says Dr. Boughey.

What Causes the Delay in Care?

For the women studied, getting their first surgery scheduled caused most of the delay in the time from diagnosis to chemotherapy, according to the research. This held true regardless of the type of surgery, whether more complicated, like mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, or more straightforward, like lumpectomy.

Even so, it's reassuring that "89% of women who are recommended to have post-op chemo do get it within the recommended 120-day period—but there is still room for improvement," Dr. Boughey said.

While doctors and hospitals can certainly do their part in helping to shorten treatment time frames, you as the patient can also work to advocate for your timely care. Don’t delay in scheduling appointments, don't be shy about following up assertively with your doctor, and most importantly, make sure to discuss your treatment timeline in your very first appointment after diagnosis.

Early diagnosis is also, of course, ideal—so if you don't currently have breast cancer, know your personal risk factors and warning signs. And don’t forget to schedule your regular mammogram—it could save your life.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.