Shorter Time to Treatment Is Associated With Improved Survival in Rural Patients With Breast Cancer Despite Other Adverse Socioeconomic Factors

OncologyONCOLOGY Vol 37, Issue 1
Volume 37
Issue 1
Pages: 19-24

Minh-Tri Nguyen, MD, and colleagues investigate the association between time to treatment, socioeconomic status, and clinical outcomes among rural and urban patients with breast cancer.


BACKGROUND. Cancer care in rural areas poses unique challenges, including access and proximity to care. This study examined differences in time to treatment initiation (TTI), a potential surrogate for access, and predictors of overall survival (OS) between rural and nonrural patients with breast cancer.

METHODS. Women with stage I to III breast cancer diagnosed between 2004 and 2012 in facilities accredited by the National Cancer Database of Commission on Cancer (CoC) were included. Differences between rural and nonrural patients in demographics, disease and treatment characteristics, socioeconomic factors, and TTI were assessed by χ2 test. The effects on OS of age, insurance status, cancer center type, community median income, percentage of the community who had not graduated from high school, and TTI were assessed using Cox models.

RESULTS. The study population was composed of 1,205,031 patients, 18,417 (2%) of whom were rural. Compared with nonrural patients, rural patients were more likely to be older, to be White, to receive care at nonacademic centers, to have government insurance or annual income less than $38,000, and to be less educated (P < .0001). Rural patients also had shorter median TTI (3 vs 4 weeks; P < .0001), which was associated with improved OS (P < .0001), and were more likely to have TTI less than 4 weeks and less than 8 weeks (P < .0001 for both). Shorter TTI (both <4 weeks vs 8 weeks and 4-8 weeks vs >8 weeks) was also associated with improved OS (P < .0001 for both). After adjusting for disease stage and demographic-, socioeconomic-, and treatment-related factors, rural status was associated with improved OS compared with nonrural status (HR, 0.92; 95% CI, 0.89-0.96; P < .0001).

CONCLUSIONS. Despite several adverse demographic and socioeconomic factors, rural patients with breast cancer with access to CoC-accredited facilities had significantly shorter TTI and better OS compared with nonrural patients. The clinical significance of this is undetermined; however, these data suggest that improving TTI can mitigate disparities in rural cancer care.

Oncology (Williston Park). 2023;37(1):19-24.
DOI: 10.46883/2023.25920982


Patients with cancer who live in rural communities face unique barriers to receiving high-quality cancer care. The geographic misdistribution of health systems that provide screening, preventive services, oncology specialty care, and clinical trials reduces access to care for rural patients.1,2 Additionally, rural communities have lower median annual income and education levels compared with urban communities, which can lead to lower health literacy. Rural patients are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured through Medicaid or Medicare compared with their urban counterparts.3 These adverse factors lead to lower screening rates, more cancer diagnoses at advanced stages, and lower adherence to standard-of-care therapies for patients in rural communities.4-7 As a result, rural patients have higher cancer incidence and mortality compared with patients in urban areas.8 Although cancer mortality rates have declined overall in the United States, the rate of decline has been slower in rural communities, further exacerbating existing disparities in outcomes.9,10

Improving time to treatment initiation (TTI), a potential surrogate for access, may be an effective strategy to improve outcomes for rural patients with cancer.11 For example, a prior study of both the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database of female breast cancer and the National Cancer Database (NCDB) showed that significant delays between diagnosis and time of surgery led to worse overall survival (OS) for patients with stage I and II breast cancer.12 A more recent study showed that median TTI for women with stage I to III breast cancer increased from 18 days in 2004 to 28 days in 2013, and treatment at an academic center was associated with an increase in median TTI of 4.1 days. For women with stage I or II breast cancer, every week of increased TTI was associated with a relative 1.8% and 1.2% increased risk of death, respectively.13 How TTI might specifically affect rural patients with cancer remains unknown.

In this study, we examined the NCDB to better understand demographic, socioeconomic, disease, and treatment differences between rural and nonrural women with breast cancer and their association with outcomes. We also investigated how TTI might affect survival in both the rural and nonrural populations.

TABLE 1. Demographics and TTI Between Rural and Nonrural Participants

TABLE 1. Demographics and TTI Between Rural and Nonrural Participants


The study cohort was obtained from the NCDB, a joint program of the American Cancer Society and the Commission on Cancer (CoC) of the American College of Surgeons. The NCDB is a hospital-based, prospectively collected outcomes database that includes approximately 70% of all new invasive cancer diagnoses and more than 1500 CoC-accredited facilities in the United States. Data collection is standardized based on the Facility Oncology Registry Data Standards, and data were generated using the Participant Use Data File program. For this study, women diagnosed with stage I to III breast cancer between 2004 and 2012 were included; these were the most recent data available at the time of data abstraction. Because the data set is deidentified and publicly available, this study was granted exempt status by the institutional review board of the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Center.

Data abstracted included age, sex, race, community median income, insurance status, community education level, county urbanization, year of diagnosis, Amer-ican Joint Committee on Cancer stage, tumor grade, cancer center type, first treatment modality, and TTI. TTI was calculated using the dates of initial cancer diagnosis and earliest cancer-directed therapy (surgery, radiation, or systemic therapy). Level of comorbidity was measured using the Charlson-Deyo score.14

Patients were then categorized into rural and nonrural groups. Data on rural status were provided in the NCDB data set, which uses a classification schema based on county population size, degree of urbanization, and proximity to a metropolitan area. A rural community was defined either by having an urban population smaller than 2500 or by being completely rural. Urban counties included both urban and metropolitan counties as defined by the NCDB.

Statistical analyses evaluated associations between patient socioeconomic and disease attributes and TTI with OS. Baseline characteristics were summarized using percentages for categorical variables and medians with IQRs for continuous variables. TTI was divided into 3 categories: less than 4 weeks, 4 to 8 weeks, and greater than 8 weeks. OS was calculated from diagnosis to death or last follow-up, and an OS event was defined as death by any cause. OS was estimated using the Kaplan-Meier method. Survival time was censored for patients who were alive at the end of the study period.

Baseline characteristics between rural and nonrural groups were analyzed using the χ2 test for categorical variables and the Wilcoxon Rank Sum Test for continuous variables. The Cox proportional hazards model was used for univariate and multivariate regression analyses of OS, which included all baseline characteristics, rural vs nonrural status, and TTI as variables. The final multivariate Cox model was stratified by year of diagnosis. A 2-sided P value of less than .05 was used to indicate statistical significance. A summary of TTI (in weeks) by rural status and race was completed by using Wilcoxon Rank Sum Test. All data analyses were performed using SAS version 9.4 (SAS Institute; Cary, NC).

TABLE 2. Summary of TTI by Rural Status and Race, in Weeks

TABLE 2. Summary of TTI by Rural Status and Race, in Weeks

TABLE 3. Multivariate Regression for Overall Survival in Breast Cancer

TABLE 3. Multivariate Regression for Overall Survival in Breast Cancer


The study population was composed of 1,205,031 patients, 18,417 (1.5%) of whom were rural. The median follow-up of all included patients was 55.6 months (range, 0.1-133.3 months). Most patients did not have a prior history of cancer (85%); this included 84% of nonrural patients and 85% of rural patients. Most of our participants (55% rural; 60% nonrural) were 65 years or younger. Our study population was diagnosed predominantly with stage I (50% rural; 51% nonrural) and stage II (33% rural; 32% nonrural) breast cancer, and surgery was overwhelmingly the first treatment they received (92% rural; 90% nonrural). Higher proportions of rural vs nonrural patients were older than 65 years at diagnosis (45% vs 40%, respectively) and were White (91% vs 85%; P < .0001 for both). Compared with nonrural patients, rural patients were more likely to receive care at nonacademic centers (85% vs 72%, respectively), to have government insurance (53% vs 43%) and a median income less than $38,000 (42% vs 15%), and to live in less-educated communities (61% vs 38%; P < .0001 for all). These data are summarized in Table 1. Overall, Black patients had significantly longer TTI than White patients (Table 2).

While the data showed statistically significant differences in Charlson-Deyo score and breast cancer stage between rural and nonrural patients, these differences were small and not clinically meaningful. As depicted in Table 1, rural vs nonrural patients had shorter median TTI (3 vs 4 weeks, respectively; P < .0001). Additionally, more rural patients had TTI of less than 4 weeks (67% vs 57%) and less than 8 weeks (94% vs 90%; P <.0001 for both). Table 3 shows that a shorter TTI (both < 4 weeks vs 8 weeks and 4-8 weeks vs >8 weeks) was associated with improved OS (HR 0.84; 95% CI, 0.82-0.86; P < .0001; and HR 0.82; 95% CI, 0.81-0.83; P < .0001, respectively). As depicted in the Figure, shorter TTI improved outcomes for both rural and nonrural patients; this was more pronounced for rural patients earlier in follow-up (by 24-36 months) than for nonrural patients (by 48-60 months).

After adjusting for disease stage and demographic-, socioeconomic-, and treatment-related factors, rural status was associated with significantly better OS compared with nonrural status (HR, 0.92; 95% CI, 0.89-0.96; P < .0001). Other multivariable regression analyses are shown in Table 3 and a forest plot showing Cox model HRs is shown in the Figure.

FIGURE. Forest Plot of Estimated Hazard Ratios by Variables

FIGURE. Forest Plot of Estimated Hazard Ratios by Variables


Cancer mortality rates are generally higher in rural than nonrural populations in the United states.4,9 Many barriers exist for patients with cancer who live in rural communities.15 Consistent with our findings, previous studies have shown that rural patients are more likely to have lower income and to be less educated.15 These socioeconomic disparities can lead to low health literacy16,17 and being underinsured,18 and they can ultimately limit help-seeking behaviors. Geographically, patients living in rural settings often lack easy access to CoC-accredited facilities, including oncology specialty care and clinical trials.3 Unsurprisingly, rurality has been correlated with not obtaining guideline-directed care19 and is associated with more advanced cancer stage at diagnosis.20 For this reason, TTI has been used as a surrogate to measure access to care, with shorter intervals correlated with better outcomes.11 Increasingly, more studies have reported shorter time to diagnosis and TTI for rural patients with breast cancer than for those in urban areas.21-25 Our study also found that rural patients with breast cancer were statistically more likely to have better TTI than their urban counterparts. Additionally, we showed that delayed TTI correlated with worse outcomes, with the biggest difference in OS seen with a TTI of greater than 8 weeks.

Our results contrast with previous findings suggesting that rurality leads to delays in TTI for patients with breast cancer, resulting in poorer outcomes.12,13,26 The complexity of care for rural patients may offer possible reasons for these trends. Qualitative studies have looked at patient attitudes concerning the concept of choice of treatment provider and facilities. These studies have suggested that because of limited resources, provider/facility choice seem somewhat irrelevant for rural patients. Although there may be fewer options for treatment facilities in rural settings, those facilities may have more quickly available openings for new patients compared with some large metropolitan health systems.

Rural patients also noted limited capacity to obtain second opinions when it came to their treatment.27 The utilization of a second opinion has been reported to be higher in patients living in urban or metropolitan areas, those with higher socioeconomic status, and those who are privately insured.28-30 However, while there are potential benefits to obtaining a second opinion, the second opinion process can lead to delays in cancer treatment initiation.28 It is possible that rural patients in our study had shorter TTI in part because they were less likely to seek second opinions. However, this study did not directly measure utilization of second opinions. Given that patients with cancer increasingly seek second opinions and that the benefits of this process remain unclear,28 it would be important to characterize this process further among rural and nonrural patients to determine differences in TTI and outcomes.

Prior studies in breast cancer have demonstrated that Black and Hispanic women experience more treatment delays than White women, including delays of surgery and radiation as well as delayed or incomplete chemotherapy.31-37 Both our rural population and nonrural population predominantly included White women (91.4% and 84.7%, respectively), which is consistent with previously published data.35 In a study of 8860 adolescent and young-adult patients with breast cancer from the California Cancer Registry, 15.4% of Black women experienced delayed TTI compared with 8.1% of White women.36 It has been well documented that Black women with breast cancer are disproportionately affected by treatment delays,24,33,35,40 including of surgery38 and chemotherapy.32,42 One study that stratified TTI within a rural population found that Black women experienced longer TTI compared with their White counterparts.40 Our study showed that Black patients overall had significantly longer TTI. While our study showed that rural patients were more likely to have shorter TTI, an overwhelming majority of our rural population was White. These data suggest that while differences in outcomes exist for rural and nonrural patients, racial inequities may be an important factor in explaining why nonrural patients in our study had less favorable outcomes and TTI.


We showed that the biggest decrease in OS was associated with TTI greater than 8 weeks for all patients, suggesting that delayed TTI is associated with worse OS. The difference in OS between TTI of less than 4 weeks and TTI of 4 to 8 weeks was statistically significant due to large sample size, but it is likely not clinically significant. Similarly, our study also found a statistically significant 1-week difference in median TTI among rural vs nonrural patients. Given that most patients in our study population presented with early stage I/II breast cancer and that most are estrogen receptor positive, it is unclear how clinically relevant this 1-week difference is to OS. Further research will need to evaluate whether factors such as aggressive subtypes or specific treatment modalities contribute to longer TTI. As there are no defined or validated TTI cutoffs, the cutoffs of 4 weeks and 8 weeks used in this study are arbitrary, although no more so than any others. Our study looked at TTI generally; future work may investigate the impact of times to initiation of specific treatments such as radiation, surgery, and neoadjuvant therapy.

As discussed, other variables—such as likelihood to seek second opinions, socioeconomic factors, and race—may also need to be explored further to fully understand the overall impact of these associations. We acknowledge that the NCDB relies on CoC-accredited hospitals, and these data may not be generalizable to all patients. Because of this, only 1.5% of our study population was composed of rural patients, compared with 18% in the general US population. Still, our findings help to define trends in a currently limited body of knowledge and to further the work in this field.

Additionally, future work may investigate data aggregated beyond 2012, particularly evaluating how the COVID-19 pandemic may have offset some factors causing disparities. One potential benefit is that during the pandemic, virtual visits became more widely available, particularly for patients who lived far from their providers. Still, rural patients are less likely to have adequate connectivity, and thus the ability of telehealth to equalize the level of access for rural and nonrural patients remains to be seen. If issues of connectivity to state-of-the art cancer care, timely second opinions, and access to subspecialists can be mitigated by telehealth, it is reasonable to be optimistic about its role in eliminating some rural health disparities.41 Until then, strategies that aim to shorten TTI using results from this study and other studies may provide a timely impact on eliminating rural health disparities.


Our study adds to a growing body of literature aimed at informing strategies that can be easily reapplied to other institutions. This study demonstrates that despite many adverse clinical and socioeconomic factors, rural women with early-stage breast cancer experience shorter TTI and better outcomes compared with urban women—this is particularly true for those with a TTI of less than 8 weeks. Our findings highlight the complexity of rural health disparities, particularly issues pertaining to access. Additionally, our study results suggest not only that TTI correlates with survival outcomes, but also that understanding these trends may help to facilitate much-needed strategies to reduce health disparities for rural patients with breast cancer. In an era when novel cancer therapies that provide survival advantages of several months (or more) are rapidly changing national guidelines, it is worth considering the connection between shortened TTI and improved OS.

DISCLOSURE: AAK has served as a consultant for Anthos, Bayer, Bristol Myers Squibb, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, and Sanofi; SDK has served as a consultant or paid advisory board member for Exelixis and Tempus.


Minh-Tri Nguyen, MD1; Wei Wei, MS2; Gregory Cooper, MD3; Alok A. Khorana, MD4; and Suneel D. Kamath, MD5

1Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, Cleveland, OH;
2Cleveland Clinic Department of Quantitative Health Science, Cleveland, OH;
3Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Cleveland, OH;
4Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, Cleveland, OH;
5Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, Cleveland, OH;


Minh-Tri Nguyen, MD
9500 Euclid Ave, CA6
Cleveland, OH 44195
Twitter: @MinhTriMD


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