1 of 2
Beth Furgurson photos
2 of 2
Equipment used in accelerated partial-breast radiation treatments includes the Nucletron High Dose Rate Unit (top) and the Partial Breast Applicator by Contura.
Radiation for breast-cancer patients used to mean treating the whole breast externally. It also required treatments several days a week for five or six weeks — hardly ideal for women who travel for work or who live in rural areas.
A procedure in use at Bon Secours Cancer Institute at St. Francis Medical Center allows radiation to be delivered to a targeted area inside the breast. For qualifying patients with tumors in the milk ducts — the most common location for breast cancers — this approach involves 10 short visits over five days. "It's always a good thing to treat less tissue," says Dr. Jo Anne Walker (pictured), of the institute's Radiation Oncology Associates. Radiation damages any remaining cancer cells to keep them from multiplying. Treating less tissue means less risk of scarring and less damage to rib bones.
Nearly half of the estimated 200,000 cases of breast cancer detected each year are candidates for partial-breast radiation therapy, Walker says. The accelerated partial-breast radiation treatments she performs irradiate the patient using a device inserted into the cavity left after a lumpectomy, when the tumor and a bit of healthy surrounding tissue are removed.
To deliver the radiation, a catheter with a deflated balloon attached is inserted into the breast of a patient under a local anesthetic. During this outpatient procedure, the balloon is inflated with water, so that the device resembles a lollipop. The catheter and the balloon have channels that allow for various placements of a small piece of radioactive metal the size of a staple during each five- to 10-minute treatment. The channels allow Walker to control the dose of radiation to ribs or skin, limiting radiation dermatitis, or burn. After the 10th treatment, the balloon is deflated and the catheter is removed.
"I'm pleased with the appearance," says Lillie Price of Prince George County, who underwent radiation therapy with Walker in February. "There's no visible burning or anything on the outside."
Price, who lives 50 miles from the hospital, says she was glad she could complete the treatments in five trips rather than 33. The compressed schedule also allowed her to begin chemotherapy sooner.