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The use of neoadjuvant endocrine therapy (NET) increased significantly during the first 8 months of the COVID-19 pandemic for women with estrogen receptor–positive (ER+) breast cancer. These patients would normally undergo surgery first, but because of operating room restrictions, those surgeries were delayed because of the pandemic, concludes a new study.

“We hypothesized that by offering a nontoxic therapy, we would be able to ‘hold over’ patients until such time when personal protective equipment supplies were renewed and we could get into the operating room,” lead author Lee Wilke, MD, professor of surgery, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, Wisconsin, told Medscape Medical News.

“And while a small number of women with ER+ tumors get NET anyway, we found over one third of patients with ER+ breast cancer were treated with NET due to COVID-19 during the first 8 months of last year,” she said.

“One year later, 31% of the same patient population is still getting NET,” she added.

The study was presented during the online annual meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons (ASBrS).

COVID-Specific Registry

Willke believes that this study presents an accurate snapshot of changes in treatment caused by the pandemic.

For the study, the team compared data collected in the ASBrS Mastery Program registry to data collected in an embedded but separate COVID segment. The data were for the period March 1 to October 28, 2020.

Almost three quarters of the surgeons who entered patients into the COVID segment were from urban areas; 95% reported stopping mammographic screening during part of this period.

The preliminary analysis focused on data collected from 2476 patients in the COVID segment and 2303 patients within the Mastery registry.

For patients with ER+/HER2- breast cancer, NET was described as a usual approach in 6.5% of patients in the COVID-19 registry. In the Mastery registry, 7.8% of patients received NET.

Compared with surgery first/usual practice, which served as the reference, older patients were more likely to receive NET first because of the COVID-19 pandemic than younger patients, and they were more likely to receive NET first if they lived in the Northeast or the Southeast compared to other regions of the United States. Wilke pointed out that the Northeast and the Southeast were hardest hit by COVID-19 early on in the pandemic.

Genomic testing was carried out in a small subgroup of patients; 24% of those patients underwent testing on the core biopsy specimen because of COVID-19, the investigators note. Genomic testing on a core biopsy specimen helps determine whether it’s feasible to forgo chemotherapy and use NET instead or whether the patient should proceed directly to surgery. The authors note that almost 11% of patients required a change in the usual surgical approach because of COVID-19. Such changes were made primarily to avoid hospitalizations during the early phase of the pandemic for patients who were to undergo mastectomy or reconstruction.

“Patients who needed standard approaches still got them,” Wilke emphasized in a statement. For example, women with aggressive triple-negative and HER2+ tumors were treated with neoadjuvant chemotherapy, she added. “However, NET is a very good approach for a moderate subset of patients, and we think we will see it being used more often in the US now,” Wilke observed.

“But especially early during the pandemic, these revised treatments were necessary because access to hospital ORs was limited or unavailable, so our algorithmic-based treatment guidelines allowed us to offer high-quality, evidence-based care fine-tuned for a patient’s specific cancer profile,” she affirmed.

Wilke has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

ASBrS 22nd Annual Meeting. Presented April 29, 2021

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