As if a diagnosis of breast cancer isn’t concerning enough, research shows one of the lifesaving cancer treatments could raise the risk of heart disease even years later.
After Jami Fairchild was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, she underwent intensive treatment including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. As a nurse who worked in oncology, Fairchild did her research and learned that radiation treatment in breast cancer patients has been associated with an increased risk for heart disease.
"After finishing treatment for breast cancer, the last thing you want to have to worry about is heart problems," said Fairchild.
Because the heart sits behind the left breast and the chest wall, the organ could be unintentionally exposed to radiation during treatment. However, the team at Mary Bird Perkins Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center developed a simple technique that could cut that exposure by up to 70 percent. All the patient has to do is hold her breath.
"When a patient takes in a deep breath, the heart literally moves towards their back, posterior, and towards their feet. So, we can take the heart away from the chest wall," explained medical physicist Koren Smith.
Smith was among the team at Mary Bird Perkins that developed their own system to help patients with the breath hold technique. While commercial systems are available, the Cancer Center’s system is more easily customizable for each patient. A small monitor mounted near the head guides the patient on how deep and how long to hold her breath. A sensor and camera ensure each breath held is the same.
By holding a breath, the heart can be moved centimeters away from the radiation zone, which is the equivalent of football fields in terms of how radiation exposure is measured.
"Of all our tools this is the one that has the most profound impact the most amount of patients," explained radiation oncologist Dr. Kate Castle. "I see anywhere from about a 30-70 percent mean heart dose by using this technique."
It's an impact that patients like Fairchild can appreciate.
"It was a big difference. I was excited," added Fairchild.
After finishing her treatment in November of 2016, Fairchild is in remission, and she said tests reveal her heart is normal and healthy as well.
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