2004-10-14 / Medical

New Technology Now Offers Breast Cancer Patients Quicker Treatment

It’s estimated that almost 216,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the United States during 2004. For some of these women, one option is breast conservation therapy, a less invasive form of treatment that usually involves the removal of a tumor (lumpectomy) followed by radiation therapy, as opposed to mastectomy, a more radical procedure with equivalent results. Doctors at New York Methodis are now equipped to offer a new breast conservation therapy technique that significantly reduces treatment time, and targets therapeutic radiation much more precisely.

Traditional external radiation therapy relies on a machine that directs high energy beams at cancerous tissue from outside the body. It is usually given five days a week for five to eight weeks, a treatment schedule that can sometimes discourage patients from receiving treatment. In fact, a National Cancer Institute study found that an estimated 25 percent of lumpectomy patients do not receive any follow up radiation treatment, with the chances of a patient forgoing therapy increasing the farther away she lives from a radiation treatment center.

The new brachytherapy technique may be used as the primary radiation treatment after a lumpectomy. It involves the placement, via a catheter, of a balloonlike device inside the cavity previously occupied by the tumor. Placement occurs either during the lumpectomy procedure or shortly thereafter. Once in place, the balloon is inflated with saline to fit snugly into the tumor cavity, with a portion of the catheter remaining outside the breast. Neither the procedure nor subsequent treatment cause significant pain.

When radiation treatment begins, a computer-controlled machine inserts a radioactive pellet through the catheter and into the balloon, where it remains for about ten minutes. After the prescribed dose of radiation is delivered, the pellet is retracted back through the catheter into the machine. Two doses of radiation are typically given, six hours apart, every day for five days. At the conclusion of the final radiation treatment, the balloon is deflated and the entire device removed.

“The process requires much less time for radiation treatment, requiring an average of five days of treatments as opposed to as many as 28 with traditional external radiation therapy methods,” said Hani Ashamalla, M.D., an attending physician in the Department of Radiation Oncology at NYM.

The therapy is also advantageous in its ability to specifically target radiation to the tumor cavity, thus delivering it to the area where cancer is most likely to recur. The technique also limits the amount of damaging radiation exposure to the patient’s skin and other surrounding healthy tissue. Therapy can be given on an in- or outpatient basis.

However, patients must first meet strict criteria before the technique can be used. “This type of treatment is available only for certain people,” said Dr. Ashamalla. “Those who are over the age of 65 and have smaller, less aggressive tumors make the best candidates.”

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