One out of every seven women in the U.S. will get breast cancer over a 90-year lifespan, reports BreastCancer.org. While the disease is rare in college-age students, women under 40 do account for 7 percent of breast cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society.
But if cancer is caught early enough, 90 percent of patients survive – and a new treatment offered at the UC Davis Cancer Center is helping revolutionize care at this critical point. The treatment takes only five days and is so low-impact that patients can start radiation on Monday, finish on Friday, and go out for drinks to celebrate that night.
“We’ve done things like this, but before, we were using dozens of catheters implanted through different sites with dozens of incisions,” said Steven Chen, a radiation oncologist at the UC Davis Cancer Center. “It really is as barbaric as it sounds. The version we’re using is a newer generation of catheters that allows us to be more precise.”
The new catheters, said Chen, are arranged in a ring of six to 10 tubes, depending on how large the surgically removed tumor was. Tumors bigger than three centimeters are not eligible for the treatment. The single, slim bundle of tubes is planted in the cavity left behind after the tumor was removed, leaving only one bundle dangling from the skin instead of dozens of individual needles.
During the five-day radiation course, a radioactive seed is slipped down one catheter in the bundle, into the precise spot where the cancer is most likely to return. This extra degree of precision is why doctors are as enthusiastic about the treatment of their patients.
Traditionally, early breast cancer gets blasted with radiation. After the tumor is excised in surgery, the entire breast gets a daily dose of radiation for six weeks. But the new treatment takes only two sessions a day for five days – and the radiation is confined to the crucial spots.
“When you do whole-breast radiation, there’s always the issue of damaging some skin,” Chen said. “On top of that, [the radiation] often [harms] some chest wall muscles, the heart and the ribs. With this new procedure, you’re radiating less tissue overall. You have a greater ability to sculpt the radiation into the place that needs it.”
Side effects of this treatment are hard to predict since the procedure is so new, said Chen, but it certainly beats old methods. The breast tissue at the radiation site might scar or harden in some cases, but compared to older techniques, which threaten bruising, blistering and higher infection risk from multiple incisions, this new approach is safer and more pleasant.
The cancer center started offering this treatment about a month ago, and has already performed nine operations.
Chen used the new method for the first time this week, and reported that everything is going smoothly. With older-generation catheters, said Chen, the tumor site had to meet stringent criteria: the cavity had to be perfectly round to accommodate the inflatable balloon that used to cap the catheter, and the site had to be far enough from vital organs that the radiation wouldn’t damage anything.
“[The new technique] is easier for us, for sure. I don’t really want go back to the operating room after doing a lumpectomy,” Chen said.
Jyoti Mayadev, the radiation oncologist who performed the other eight procedures, told UC Davis News that the new treatment boosts the cancer center’s tumor-fighting arsenal. It lets doctors work on a wider variety of tumors and aim the radiation more precisely, while making patients more comfortable.
“We can increase the local control while significantly lowering radiation doses to critical areas,” Mayadev said, “potentially decreasing the risk of long-term radiation effects such as cardiac morbidity and radiation lung scarring.”
EMILY GOYINS can be reached at email@example.com.