More women with late-stage breast cancer are surviving for longer periods of time.This is particularly true of patients who have surgery to remove cancerous tumors. But researchers at the University of Iowa say one day drugs will replace surgery for all breast cancer patients.

The researchers concluded that women initially diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer who undergo surgery have three times the likelihood of surviving for 10 years or more than women who don’t have the surgery.

But the survival rate is still too low, they said, urging  the medical community to pioneer new drug treatments to tackle the common cancer.

“Surgery is clearly associated with prolonged survival,” Dr. Alexandra Thomas, a study co-author as well as an oncologist and clinical professor at the University of Iowa, told Healthline. “However, the day may come when we don’t have to do surgery to treat breast cancer.”

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A Thorough Study

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States and the developed world. About 250,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer every year.

Between 5 percent and 10 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are at stage IV by the time their cancer is discovered.

The research team looked at the diagnoses and treatment of more than 21,000 women whose first diagnosis was stage IV.

The women were diagnosed between 1988 and 2011 and did not receive radiation as a first course of treatment.

The researchers discovered the median survival rate for the breast cancer patients had increased from 20 months in 1988-1991 to 26 months in 2007-2011.

This was despite the fact the rate of surgery actually declined during the study period.

Researchers did find that for women diagnosed before 2002 there was nearly a 10 percent survival rate of more than 10 years for those who underwent surgery. That compared to about 3 percent of the same group that didn’t have surgery.

The findings were published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Advances in Treatment, Diagnosis

Thomas said a number of medical advances have occurred the past three decades that have helped improve the long-term survival rate for breast cancer.

The first is better diagnostic capabilities. Breast cancer is now detected earlier. Thomas said stage IV breast cancer today is not the same thing as stage IV breast cancer in 1995.

Thomas added better systematic drug therapies ranging from chemotherapy to biologics to hormonal treatments are more effective in battling breast cancer.

“Our technologies are pushing ahead so fast,” said Thomas.

She noted the study of survival rates effectively ended in 2012, 10 years after the 2002 diagnoses. She said advancements the past three years may have improved the survival rates even more.

For the future, there are new advancements that might push the long-term survival rates even higher.

Among them are immune therapies that have been effective for other types of cancer. In addition, there are preventive surgeries for women like Angelina Jolie who are at a high risk for breast and other cancers.

“We are getting better and better at detecting who’s at ultra-high risk,” said Thomas.

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