In the last three decades, there has been a gradual, though significant change in the treatment of early stage breast cancer. For almost a century, physicians advocated an 'anatomical view' of the dissemination of this disease, which justified a more radical and mutilating treatment strategy [1,2]. Finally in the mid-1970s, results from large randomized trials began to show that either mastectomy  or lumpectomy with radiation therapy  were appropriate treatment for women with early stage disease. These results suggested that breast cancer can actually be a systemic disease ('biological view') even in early stages. This hypothesis was confirmed when large randomized clinical trials demonstrated the effectiveness of adjuvant systemic therapy in controlling micrometastatic disease in women with node-positive  and node negative [6-8] disease.As we approach the end of this century, most patients with early stage disease will be offered some form of adjuvant systemic therapy, before or after local treatment with surgery, with or without local radiation therapy. There has been a lot of interest on the proper sequence of the therapeutic modalities, in particular with the recent publication of larger randomized trials of primary systemic therapy [9-11]. This specific topic is discussed elsewhere in this issue by Singletary. Copyright (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd.
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