‘We’ve not just got better at treating breast cancer – we’ve got miles better’

More women with breast cancer are surviving without the need for major surgery compared to 30 years ago, a consultant oncologist has revealed.

Breast cancer specialist Dr Sunil Upadhyay, who works at the Queen’s Centre in Cottingham, said medical advances used by the team mean the majority of women no longer require mastectomies.

Instead, most women from Hull, East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire undergo lumpectomies to remove the tumour or therapies such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy without having their breasts removed.

The team, based at Castle Hill Hospital, are also able to harvest eggs and save ovaries to protect younger women’s chances of motherhood. They can also use special “cold caps” to try to prevent a woman losing her hair during chemotherapy.

At the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Dr Upadhyay sent out a positive message to women diagnosed with the condition.

“I’m not just saying we’ve got better at treating breast cancer – we’ve got miles better,” he said.

“Since the 1990s, survival rates, not just for five or 10 years but the ‘cured for good’ rate, have been going up and up and up.

“Not only are more women surviving, we’re also providing people with better support before, during and after treatment.”

The Queen’s Centre, regarded as a UK centre of excellence in oncology care, sees around 600 women with breast cancer each year.

Dr Upadhyay is part a multi-disciplinary team of consultants, breast surgeons, pathologists, radiologists, breast care nurses and support staff who meet every week to discuss the best course of treatment for each patient.

With vast experience after more than 27 years at the trust, Dr Upadhyay said more women are coming forward than ever before thanks to the national breast cancer screening programme. Campaigns such as encouraging women to check their own breasts regularly have also seen earlier diagnosis, allowing more women to survive.

“The treatment has become better with the number of mastectomies going down significantly,” Dr Upadhyay said. “Local excision of the tumour (lumpectomy) is now much more common.

“Even when women present with large tumours, we’ve become very good at shrinking them with chemotherapy or hormone therapy so patients don’t need mastectomies.”

For the small number of women who still need a mastectomy, the team ensures she has reconstructive surgery while still on the operating theatre to minimise psychological trauma.

Dr Upadhyay said: “We can now offer immediate breast reconstruction with the help of our plastic surgeons so when the women wake up, they have a reconstructed breast already.

“That is definitely a good thing for the patients and their nearest and dearest but it’s also a good thing for other women with breast cancer to know.”

The team can also access latest drugs now available to NHS patients for tailor-made treatment plans.

Dr Upadhyay said: “Over the last 10 years, six or seven new drugs have become available to NHS patients allowing us to personalise treatment in a way that wasn’t possible before.

“One person might get Treatment A while the other gets Treatment B because we know every woman is different with different types of cancers.

“These drugs mean we can offer the treatment that is going to work best for them. Not only does this produce the best outcome, it also means fewer unnecessary side-effects.”

He said new methods of radiotherapy like the Deep Inspirational Breath-Hold (DIBH) technique and Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) limit damage to other organs and bones and reduce scarring to breast tissue.

“The outcomes are brilliant and the side effects are minimal compared to what we used to see 30 years ago,” he said. “And the best thing is all of these techniques we are able to offer patients right here at Castle Hill.”

As well as better treatment, the emotional and psychological needs of patients and families are also looked after by the team at the Oncology Health Centre.

Dr Upadhyay said: “We not only aim to give people the best treatment, we want to make sure they are supported too.

“While no one wants to hear they have breast cancer. But what we can say now is that things have really improved.”