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A second study at the conference focused on treating breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes. Standard treatment is surgery followed by chemotherapy or hormone therapy and several weeks of radiation to the breast. Women with large tumors or many cancerous nodes also get radiation to the armpit and lower neck, but doctors don’t know if this helps women with smaller tumors or only one to three cancerous nodes _ a common situation.

Dr. Timothy Whelan of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, led a study of 1,832 such women. All received standard treatment with radiation to the breast, and half also had radiation in the armpit and lower neck area.

After about five years, 90 percent of those given wider radiation were cancer-free versus 84 percent of the others, and there was a trend toward better survival with more radiation.

Lung inflammation and lymphedema _ painful arm swelling caused by poor drainage _ were more common with wider radiation, but doctors said these side effects were worth the benefit of fewer cancer recurrences.

The results are “potentially practice-changing” and will encourage doctors to offer wider radiation, Whelan said.

The National Cancer Institute and Canadian Cancer Society paid for the study.

Worldwide, about 1.3 million women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and nearly 500,000 women die of the disease. Last year in the United States, there were about 207,000 new cases and 40,000 deaths from breast cancer.

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Online:

Breast cancer: http://bit.ly/iIrUxt

Breast cancer risk calculator: http://cancer.gov/bcrisktool

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Marilynn Marchione can be followed at http://twitter.com/MMarchioneAP