New breast cancer radiation treatments

July 14, 2008 7:45:17 PM PDT
For women who undergo surgery for breast cancer, the ordeal often continues through follow-up radiation treatments. But a new method of delivering radiation is cutting treatment time dramatically.

It's a new therapeutic category for early stage breast cancer treatment. It's called "accelerated partial breast irradiation," and as the name implies, instead of targeting the whole breast, doctors zero in on the area where the tumor was removed.

As a single mom working in sales, time literally is money for Karen Hill.

"I'm on the go all the time, in people's offices, at trade shows," said Hill.

So a diagnosis of breast cancer threatened her livelihood as well as her health.

Because doctor's caught Karen's cancer early, they were able to perform a small lumpectomy. But she still faced nearly two months of follow-up radiation.

Instead Karen's doctors offered an alternative.

"Within three weeks of surgery they put a catheter in," said Hill.

Instead of using an external radiation beam, doctors at the California Endocurietherapy Center in Oakland were preparing to actually insert radioactive material into the interior of Karen's breast.

It's a fast evolving technique by Mammosite, one of several companies that markets the equipment.

First, technicians fill a balloon at the tip with saline to inflate the cavity where the tumor has been removed. Then, they're able to float a radioactive pellet calculated to kill any remaining cancer on the cavity walls.

"We're giving radiation from the inside out, instead of the outside in," said Dr. Dennis Hill from California Endocurietheraphy Center.

Dr. Hill, no relation to Karen, says new versions of the internal radiation catheters now target the energy much more efficiently than external procedures which must penetrate the entire breast.

"You can radiate a small amount of tissue at a faster rate," said Dr. Hill.

And it means less disruption in a patient's life. Traditional radiation therapy averages almost seven weeks. But with the internal treatment of breast cancer, a patient can finish in about one week.

"And the catheter is removed and a patient gets on with their lives," said Dr. Hill.

For thousands of working women, the advances can mean a chance to stay on the job, even as they recover from breast cancer surgery. Something that was critical to Karen.

"It bought me time," said Hill.

The same technology is also being used for prostate cancer patients, offering many of the same post-surgery advantages.

As for breast cancer patients, doctors estimate about half of newly diagnosed patients may be eligible for the treatment.


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