Research might turn radiation for breast cancer upside down

September 6, 2012 | by Hiu Chung So

Photo of older woman lying face downMost women undergoing radiation for breast cancer lie on their backs during treatment, but a new study out of New York might flip that practice. It suggests that most women would have fewer side effects if they lie face down.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams, like X-rays, against cancer cells. Unfortunately, the beams can hit surrounding normal tissues in the heart and lungs. That causes side effects from coughing to chronic heart damage. So doctors and researchers are continually looking for ways to improve treatments.

That may be as simple as telling patients to flip over.


Doctors ran simulation computed tomography, or CT, scans on 400 patients in both face-up and face-down positions to learn about their exposure. In about 85 percent of the women, going face down spared the heart and lungs from as much exposure as getting therapy face up.

City of Hope radiation oncologist Nayana Vora, M.D., says the results are interesting, but noted that there are other ways to block radiation to the heart and lungs without making women lie face down, which can be awkward for patients. It’s possible to use a sort of shield, for starters.

At City of Hope, doctors assess each patient individually and come up with treatment plans – including the patients’ treatment positions – according to the needs of each patient and details about their cancer, she told a HealthDay reporter.

Most City of Hope patients get radiation on their back, Vora noted in the news story, as “it is more comfortable for patients.”

Each treatment only takes about 10 minutes, but it’s done over six weeks, she says, so personal comfort should be taken into account when planning therapy. Still, if evidence shows that lying face down could reduce risk to organs, it’s worth considering.

Will these findings start to turn radiation therapy for breast cancer on its head? Stay tuned.

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