updated 8/9/2006 7:16:13 AM ET 2006-08-09T11:16:13

Stomach cancer patients live longer if they get chemotherapy before and after surgery, British researchers report.

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Chemo cut the risk of death by a quarter compared to surgery alone, according to the study published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine. It also shrank tumors and improved survival without a return of cancer.

The results provide a new option for the treatment of operable stomach cancer, Dr. John S. Macdonald, of St. Vincent’s Comprehensive Cancer Center in New York, wrote in an accompanying editorial in the journal.

Surgery is the standard treatment for stomach cancer, with all or part of the stomach removed. There’s a good chance of a cure if it is caught early, but stomach cancer usually isn’t detected until it is more advanced. Chemotherapy after surgery to kill any lingering cancer cells hasn’t proved very beneficial.

In the United States, about 22,300 new cases will be diagnosed this year and about 11,400 people will die of the disease.

In a study of 503 patients conducted primarily in Britain, doctors tried giving chemotherapy both before and after surgery to those with operable stomach cancer or cancer of the esophagus. After five years, 36 percent of those who got chemo were still alive compared to 23 percent of those who only had surgery.

The research was led by Dr. David Cunningham of Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton and London. It was supported by Britain’s Medical Research Council with the cost of one chemotherapy drug paid for by its manufacturer.

The researchers said side effects from the chemo were similar to those reported by other stomach cancer patients. They noted that the chemo combination used — epirubicin, cisplatin and fluorouracil — was developed in the 1980s and that newer chemo drugs are now available.

The newer drugs will have to be tested in a similar study to see if they are better than the older combination, Macdonald said in his editorial.

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