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Lasers May Be Gentler Alternative to Breast Cancer Surgery


WebMD Health News

June 10, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Doctors in England and Arkansas are working on a technique that someday may be able to treat small breast cancers in the time it takes to go to the dentist ... without leaving so much as a scar.

"We think we may have a simple technique. It's looking promising for treating small cancers without the need for surgery, as an alternative to surgery, and any further treatment for those patients would be along conventional lines," says Stephen G. Bown, MD. Bown is director of the National Medical Laser Center in London, England.

Along with researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, the British researchers have been using a laser to burn away the cancer. It's called interstitial laser photocoagulation, or ILP. Bown presented some early results at the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program Meeting here this weekend.

It's very "attractive because we don't require [putting the patient to sleep]," no hospital stay is needed, and it's safer, Bown says. The process, adds Bown, also doesn't leave a scar or change the shape or size of the breast.

Up to four needles threaded with thin optic fibers are placed through the skin, into the breast. The needles are placed where the tumor can best be attacked. A low power laser light then gently heats and kills the cancerous tissue. The body takes care of the dead cells through its normal healing process. The patients also undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy afterward, as would happen after traditional breast cancer surgery.

Bown tells WebMD some women describe the process as feeling "like a mild sunburn under the skin."

Steven E. Harms, MD, with the University of Arkansas, tells WebMD the process can be done in about an hour.

Both doctors made it clear the process is not for everyone, only those with small tumors that have not spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes. But Harms tells WebMD that about 30% of women with breast cancer would fit the category, and with the ongoing success of screening methods, that number is likely to rise to 50%.

The success of the treatment all hinges on whether an imaging procedure called magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, can accurately determine if the laser has destroyed all the cancer. To do this, the researchers have performed the procedure on about 100 women. Ultimately, Bown hopes to recruit up to 500 women to prove the procedure works.

Bown tells WebMD, "We're playing with fire here," so extreme precautions are being taken to be sure the cancer is gone. The women first undergo a MRI before the procedure, then again after the procedure. But because the researchers are not sure that the MRI is adequately showing the full extent of the cancer, surgery is performed to verify the entire cancerous area in the breast. That tissue is then examined under a microscope and compared to the findings of the MRI scan.

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