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New Breast Cancer Treatment Cuts Radiation Course to 5 Days

By Kay Quinn

(This story first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and accompanied a story on KSDK Channel 5.)

April 16, 2007 – A diagnosis of breast cancer can mean months of chemotherapy and six to eight weeks of daily radiation treatments. The regimen not only takes a physical toll but is also time-consuming.

Now, new technology is dramatically reducing the treatment time for certain breast cancer patients who need radiation therapy. Instead of the standard course of treatment, which involves a few minutes of radiation every weekday for six to eight weeks, some patients are now being offered a course of radiation that can be completed in five days.

Unlike other radiation techniques that can shorten the course of therapy for patients with breast cancer, this one doesn't require the surgical implantation of catheters. It is delivered through the skin like traditional therapy.

Julia Lamborn Gettinger of north St. Louis County had so-called partial breast radiation after having a lumpectomy last April for stage 1 breast cancer.

Partial breast radiation uses an external beam of radiation to target the area where the tumor was found within a millimeter of accuracy.

"Patients love it because if they're eligible and they can have their treatment completed in a week, obviously they find it a lot more attractive than six weeks," says Simon Powell, MD, PhD, a radiation oncologist at the Siteman Cancer Center.

A special machine called Trilogy delivers the radiation. It's part diagnostic unit, part therapeutic X-ray unit, and can take CT scans and conventional X-rays. A three-dimensional camera increases the accuracy of the area being treated.

Powell believes partial breast radiation is just as effective as standard radiation therapy.

In the five days of treatment, patients get two doses of radiation six hours apart. Side effects can include skin redness and fatigue, but because the course of treatment is shorter, side effects are said to be less than with standard therapy.

Lamborn Gettinger says she experienced few side effects.

Only patients with early-stage breast cancer that has not spread to the lymph nodes are candidates for partial breast radiation using the Trilogy unit.

Kay Quinn is a reporter and anchorwoman for KSDK Channel 5.