Nancie, 69, was recently diagnosed with an early-stage breast cancer known as DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). Because her cancer was confined to one breast and hadn't spread to other parts of her body, Nancie had many treatment options available to her. After consulting with her physician, Nancie chose to have a lumpectomy (partial breast removal) followed by a new form of radiation therapy known as "brachytherapy."
Brachytherapy: A New Approach to Radiation
In the past, radiation treatment could only be delivered over the course of six weeks. Because there was no way to target the radiation directly to the cancer site, "We'd have to give it in small doses to allow the normal tissue [in the surrounding area] a chance to heal," explains Dr. Rakesh Patel, radiation oncologist, in a recent educational video. So patients had no choice but to put their lives on hold for a month and a half while they went through treatment.
But thanks to advances in medical technology, radiation oncologists have found a way to make radiation more precise, so that it can be delivered in larger doses over a shorter time period -- just five days.
"Targeted breast radiation--or brachytherapy--uses a radioactive pellet to hone in on the region at risk of having any residual cancer cells after surgery," says Patel, who also serves as president of the American Brachytherapy Society. "This allows us to amplify the radiation dose just to that area, sparing surrounding healthy tissue."
So far studies measuring brachytherapy's effectiveness have been overwhelmingly positive. "Cancer recurrence risk is identical to whole breast radiation as long as you have early, favorable, selected patients," says Patel. And more than half of patients diagnosed with breast cancer every year are eligible for the treatment.
For Nancie, the choice was easy: "One week, twice a day instead of six weeks," she recalls thinking. As a busy artist with exhibitions throughout the year, she needed to be able to get back to work as soon as she could.
Not only did Nancie find the treatment convenient, she describes it as "painless and fast." And getting it over with in just a week and being able to get back to her normal life gave her peace of mind.
"I have no regrets," says Nancie, who recently volunteered to participate in an educational video to help other patients better understand brachytherapy treatment.
Outlook for Patients
Nancie is just one of the many breast cancer survivors today who are fortunate to have been diagnosed early, long before the cancer had a chance to spread.
And Patel points out that these days he sees many patients just like Nancie, since overall awareness and screening technology have improved in recent years.
He tells patients who have been newly diagnosed to "be optimistic," since success rates for treatment of early-stage breast cancer is high.
His other two words of advice: "Seek alternatives." If you don't think you're getting enough information about the newest treatment options available to patients today, then be sure to get a second opinion.
To learn more about brachytherapy, watch these short videos from Dr. Patel and Nancie, or contact the Center for Advanced Radiotherapy and CyberKnife Radiosurgery at 650-940-7243.