"The most important prognostic factors we have currently are the lymph nodes, and other things such as the size of the tumor and the markers on the tumor," says Dr. Anthony Lucci, Jr. of the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Now researchers at MD Anderson say a blood test may be able to predict a patient's risk for recurrence and death.
The test removes normal parts of the blood and leaves behind any cells that may have broken away from the tumor.
Already used in patients with metastatic disease, this is the first time it's been used in early stage breast cancer patients who don't know if their cancer has spread.
"If the patients had cells in the blood they had at least four times the chance of having a recurrence or death, and for patients who had a lot of cells, lets say three or more, the chance of dying was around 11 times higher," Dr. Lucci explains.
About a quarter of the 300 hundred patients in the trial had these cells in their blood.
While researchers say this is valuable information, they don't know what to do with it yet.
"We don't even know which chemo agents are best at getting rid of these cells or if we need, lets say, targeted therapies," Dr. Lucci says.
More studies are in the works.
Researchers hope to have some answers within the next five years.
The researchers found markers on the tumor cells were sometimes different from those on the tumor itself, suggesting multiple treatments might be needed to get rid of the cancer.
This is another topic they hope to explore in future studies.