Although surgeons can remove most of a breast cancer tumor through surgery, microscopic amounts of cancer can remain. To ensure those cancer remnants don’t grow or spread, breast cancer patients often undergo follow-up radiation treatment for as long as seven weeks after their surgery.
A relatively new technique could make their post-surgery lives much easier. Called intraoperative radiation therapy, or IORT, this new form of radiation therapy replaces weeks of traditional radiation therapy. It’s administered in a single dose directly at the tumor site – and given at the same time as the surgery. “For most patients, they will not require the normal daily radiation treatments that normally require six to seven weeks,” said Laura Kruper, M.D., director of the Rita Cooper Finkel and J. William Finkel Women’s Health Center. “It allows a woman to get her radiation and her surgery in one day.”
Intraoperative radiation therapy can be especially beneficial to women with early-stage disease, but is still relatively unknown in some parts of the country. Kruper expects that to change as doctors and insurers learn more about the technique.
In this procedure, after removing the tumor from the breast, the surgeon places a specially designed balloon in the space left by the tumor. The balloon is inflated, filling the space, and radiation is then delivered through a catheter directly to the former tumor’s site, where the risk of cancer recurrence is highest. The rest of the body is shielded during the procedure, protecting healthy tissue from damage. After about 15 minutes of treatment, the balloon and catheter are removed.
Unlike traditional radiation therapy, which is delivered after a patient has recovered from surgery, the new procedure kills tumor cells immediately, preventing them from growing further. The compact time of treatment can help patients return to their daily lives more quickly.
“Anytime you can do something once instead of 25 times or more, boy – give it to me once,” said JoAnn Corbin, 78, who was treated with IORT earlier this year. “I went home and was puttering in the yard the same day.”
The shortened treatment period let Corbin spend more of her recovery at her Glendale home with her husband of 54 years, Bruce, rather than shuttling to and from treatment. (Here, Corbin offers advice to other women on how to take care of their health.)
Corbin’s breast cancer was discovered during her annual mammogram, and a needle biopsy confirmed that she had cancer. Because she had early-stage disease, she was told she was a candidate for the less-disruptive IORT procedure.
“Nobody likes to go and get a mammogram,” Corbin said. “That’s not the most fun thing to do. If I hadn’t done it, it probably would not have been a Stage 1 cancer. In a year’s time, it could have been a Stage 2 or 3 – then we’re dealing with something totally different.”
Breast cancer remains the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. The American Cancer Society estimates that 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2013, in addition to 64,640 cases of noninvasive breast cancer. About 39,620 people are expected to die of the disease this year – a decline over previous years. . The number of deaths has been falling since the late 1980s, largely due to earlier detection through screening, increased awareness and better treatments.
“There are so many therapies out there nowadays, and breast cancer is very curable when it’s caught with early detection,” Kruper said.
In the video above, Laura Kruper, M.D., discusses IORT and other breast cancer therapies available at City of Hope.