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Advancements in Breast Cancer Treatment: Brachytherapy Explained

Everyday Health logo

By Dr. Eliaz - Your Guide to Wellness
As printed on www.EverydayHealth.com
April 18, 2012

For women with breast cancer, it can be overwhelming to sort through the numerous treatment options, many of which may conflict one another, or not be appropriate for certain individuals. When it comes to conventional cancer therapies, there are factors to consider such as the potentially debilitating side effects, which cause many women to avoid these treatments regardless of outcome. Scientists and medical researchers are on a constant search for effective therapies that can strategically attack the cancer, while protecting and maintaining the health of the patient, with minimal discomfort. Breast brachytherapy is one such weapon against cancer, offering targeted radiation therapy with much fewer side effects.

Breast brachytherapy is regarded as a safe and effective alternative to standard radiation treatment for many breast cancer patients. It offers important advantages, including shorter treatment time and much less radiation exposure to surrounding tissues. Although the overall rates of survival are similar for both types of radiation treatment, brachytherapy (pronounced "brack-ee-therapy") can be a much better option for the right candidates, because it minimizes damaging effects.

A giant leap was made in the treatment of breast cancer when lumpectomy, or breast-conserving surgical therapy, was introduced and eventually widely adopted. Lumpectomy, followed by radiation, has become the standard of care for appropriate candidates, with survival rates as good as those for mastectomies.

After lumpectomy surgery, the standard of care is external beam radiation, where radiation is delivered to the tumor area through the skin. Although there have been advances in technology with radiation beams that are much more precise, there is still radiation delivered to the skin, ribs, chest wall, and lung underlying the breast. The heart can also be impacted if the breast cancer is on the left side. External beam radiation is usually done over a six-week period of daily treatment.

What is Brachytherapy?

"Brachy" comes from the Greek root meaning "from a short distance." Brachytherapy involves the use of tiny radioactive pellets that are inserted in or near the site of cancer. In addition to breast, other cancers commonly treated with brachytherapy include cancers of the cervix and uterus, mouth and throat, prostate, and cancers of muscles, called sarcomas.

The advantage of brachytherapy lies in the laws of physics: very close to the radioactive seeds, the radiation intensity is very high. But just a short distance away (millimeters), radiation intensity falls off rapidly. This gives an important therapeutic advantage: if the seeds are precisely positioned in the tissues containing cancer cells, radiation to the nearby healthy tissues such as the lung, heart, ribs, and skin can be avoided.

Breast brachytherapy requires treatment for only five days, twice per day. Compared to six weeks of external beam radiation, this is an enormous benefit. Even more significant is the sparing of radiation to all the normal surrounding tissues.

Finding the Right Doctor

Brachytherapy was pioneered by Dr. Robert Kuske at his center, Arizona Breast Cancer Specialists. He developed the first brachytherapy techniques, which were followed by a number of related devices that were developed by different companies. Kuske continues to be a leader in the field, and clinical trials are ongoing using various brachytherapy devices.

Many medical centers providing this treatment offer only one or two brachytherapy devices. In contrast, Dr. Kuske utilizes all the available devices, and chooses the most suitable one for each patient. The choice of device is highly individualized, based on thorough in-depth evaluation.

If you may be a candidate for this type of radiation and can afford to travel, your best option may be to see Dr. Kuske, since he is the leading authority in recommending the best brachytherapy for you. If this is not a possibility, then it is recommended to do some research on what type of brachytherapy is offered in your area. You can also visit www.arizona-breast-cancer-specialists.com or call the phone number on the website for more in-depth information to help guide your decisions.

Brachytherapy is an exciting development for women facing breast surgery and radiation. It helps alleviate much of the fear associated with radiation of normal tissue, and the course of therapy is short with minimal side effects. If you think you may be a candidate, be sure to look into this option more in depth.