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Shorter Radiation for Breast Cancer

Study: Single-Dose Technique Inspired by Prostate Cancer Treatment
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 4, 2006 -- It may be possible to shorten the duration of radiation treatments given to people with breast cancer to a one-time treatment.

Breast cancer is women's most common cancer (except for nonmelanoma skin cancer). The American Cancer Society predicted more than 211,000 new U.S. cases in 2005.

Radiation is widely used in treating breast cancer. The goal is to use radiation to kill cancer cells that linger after surgery.

Radiation has been shown to be effective. Current treatment schedules span several weeks, which may be difficult for some patients, note Canadian researchers.

So they tested a shorter approach, giving patients one treatment to deliver long-lasting radiation that would be equal to the amount of radiation usually given over a two-month period. Traditional radiation treatment is not only a lengthy process but also associated with skin reactions around the radiation site.

Goal: Shorter Radiation Schedules

First, patients got surgery to remove their breast tumors. Then, they got rice-sized radioactive 'seeds' implanted in their breasts, near the cancer site. The seeds release their radiation over time.

The single procedure is a big change from current radiation treatment plans, which involve multiple weekly sessions for up to two months.

The strategy "seems feasible," at least for some patients, write Jean-Philippe Pignol, MD, PhD, and colleagues the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics.

They work in the radiation oncology department of the University of Toronto's Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre.

One-Time Treatment

"The seed implants reduce the treatment to a one-time event, compared to the current standard of daily treatments over many weeks," Pignol says in a news release.

"The seeds also reduce the amount of radiation the normal breast tissue receives, which lessens the chance of the patient developing problems that affect their postcancer quality of life," he continues.

"The great thing," Pignol says, "is that the patient can go home right after the procedure and live a normal life while receiving her radiation."

Other researchers are also working on different ways to shorten radiation treatments for breast cancer. One approach uses a catheter to deliver radiation to the breast twice daily over five days.

The technique used by Pignol's team is based on a radiation treatment for prostate cancer.

Testing the Idea

Pignol's study included 31 women treated at the University of Toronto's Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre.

The women were 40 years old or younger. They had had small breast tumors and had gotten a lumpectomy, an operation designed to save as much of the breast as possible.

Fifteen women didn't get the radioactive seeds. That left 16 who underwent the procedure.

Why were nearly half of the women excluded? The seeds are implanted by a needle from one side of the chest wall. Patients were eligible if their tumor locations had been within the needle's reach. Some patients' medical records didn't specifically show that.

Safety Results

The procedure was "well-tolerated," write Pignol and colleagues. Results include:

  • More than half of the women (56%) reported no pain during the procedure.
  • No women reported strong reactions to the radiation; however, some developed milder reactions.
  • Patients reported being "very satisfied" (57%) or "satisfied" (43%) with the procedure.

The study was conducted in 2004 -- too soon for a lengthy follow-up.

The researchers call for bigger, longer studies to check how well the seeds work and what risks the technique might involve over longer periods of time.

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