Precise Radiation for Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States. Treating it typically requires surgery, followed by radiation therapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
A physician’s ability to confidently detect lesions, determine the best course of treatment and prevent recurrence comes from the quality of information she has.
When it comes to treatment, older radiation delivery methods can expose nearby, healthy tissue to damage. Cutting-edge therapies such as Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) and Image-Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT) enable physicians to deliver higher doses of precisely focused radiation to cancerous tumors while sparing nearby healthy tissue. This is particularly significant for left-breast cancer, where the heart and lungs are at risk.
Women who elect Breast Conservation Therapy (BCT) receive an additional dose of localized radiation in efforts to eliminate pre-cancerous cells in the surrounding tissue and prevent the cancer from returning.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is an uncontrolled growth of breast cells that leads to the formation of a tumor. Some breast tumors are benign (non-cancerous) and do not cause harm. They grow slowly and do not spread to other areas of the body. Malignant breast tumors are cancerous; left unchecked cancer cells can make their way into the underarm lymph nodes, which provides a pathway for them to spread to other areas of the body.
Each breast has 15-20 sections, called “lobes,” connected by thin tubes called “ducts.” Breast cancers include:
- Ductal carcinoma, which begins in the ducts and is the most common type.
- Lobular carcinoma, which begins in the lobes and is found in both breasts more often than other types of breast cancer.
- Inflammatory breast cancer, which is rare.
- Recurrent breast cancer, which is cancer that has returned. It can occur in remaining breast tissue, but also in other sites such as the lungs, liver, bones or brain. Even if tumors are in a new location, it is still called breast cancer.
Who Gets Breast Cancer?
According the American Cancer Society, breast cancer affects approximately 13% (1 in 8) of American women. Death rates have been declining since 1990; thanks to increased awareness, earlier detection and advances in treatment, only one in 35 are likely to die from the disease. Today, there are approximately 2.5 million breast cancer survivors across the country.
The most significant risk factors for breast cancer are gender and age. Women are 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer than men, and two of three women diagnosed are over age 55. Other risk factors include:
- Heredity – a woman’s risk doubles if a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) has had the disease.
- Race – white women are more likely to develop breast cancer than African American women, but less likely to die from it. Women of other ethnic backgrounds are less likely to develop or die from the disease than white women or African American women.
- Varied factors such as dense breast tissue, early menstruation, prior chest radiation, prior breast cancer (recurrence), significant weight gain after menopause and treatment with—or exposure to—the drug DES.
- Some studies show that certain lifestyle factors—no children or children later in life, recent use of birth control pills, post-menopausal hormone therapy, not breast feeding, alcohol use, overweight or obese, lack of exercise—can increase the chance of developing breast cancer.
How Do I Know If I Have Breast Cancer?
The size of the breast cancer tumor and how far it has spread are the best indicators for survival. Therefore, early detection is important. Because breast tumors are often painless, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends the following for women without symptoms:
- breast self-exams beginning in their 20s
- clinical breast exam at least every three years for women in their 20s and 30s and annually for women over 40
- annual mammogram for women over age 40
If breast cancer does cause symptoms, they can include:
- skin irritation or dimpling
- breast pain
- nipple pain or the nipple turning inward
- redness, scaliness, discoloration or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- nipple discharge other than breast milk
- a lump in the underarm area
- swelling, redness and warmth, which may indicate inflammatory breast cancer
There are several tests physicians can use to further the diagnostic process and look for breast cancer. These include diagnostic mammogram, MRI, breast ultrasound or ductogram, which is a special X-ray that is helpful in determining the cause of nipple discharge.
As with other cancers, the only way to know for sure is with a biopsy—a procedure in which a sample of the tumor is sent to the lab to be examined under a microscope. With a needle biopsy, a needle is used to remove a small amount of fluid and tissue from the suspect area.
Lymph nodes are olive-shaped glands that can carry cancer from one part of the body to another. The first node to which cancer spreads is called the “sentinel node.” In breast cancer, the sentinel node is usually one that is under the arm. Removing the sentinel node during a biopsy can provide physicians with better information for diagnosing and treatment planning, and can potentially reduce the amount of surgery needed.
What Are My Treatment Options?
Physicians use the results of the diagnostic tests to determine the site of the cancer and to stage it—or tell how far it has spread. This helps determine the outlook for recovery and the best course of treatment. New technologies offered by Century Cancer Centers, can greatly enhance diagnosis, staging and treatment planning as well as more effectively monitor treatment and monitor for recurrence of disease.
While breast cancer is often treatable, it can be life threatening. Therefore, patients should work together with their physician to choose among several treatment options that may be used alone or in combination, and understand the risks and benefits of each.
Surgery is the most common form of treatment for breast cancer. It is often followed by radiation and sometimes chemotherapy and/or hormone therapy.
Breast Conserving Surgery There are two types of surgery aimed at sparing the breast:
- Lumpectomy – also called an “excisional biopsy,” a lumpectomy removes the lump as well as some of the healthy tissue around it to check for any remaining cancer cells.
- Partial Mastectomy – this surgery is more extensive and removes the area of the breast containing cancer, some of the tissue around it, the lining of the chest wall underneath the tumor and any affected lymph nodes.
Mastectomy With a mastectomy, one or both of the breasts are removed in their entirety, along with any affected lymph nodes. In 80% of cases, breast reconstruction or implant surgery is performed at the same time.
The female hormones, estrogen, progesterone and estrodial can promote the growth of breast cancer tumors. Hormone therapy uses drugs such as tamoxifen, fulvestrant and aromatase inhibitors, given orally or via IV, to counter the effects of these hormones or stop the body from producing them. They can be used as an adjunct to other therapies and also to reduce the threat of cancer for women at high risk. Another form of hormone therapy is removing the ovaries of a woman who has not reached menopause. Side effects of hormone therapy include fatigue, nausea, hot flashes, vaginal discharge, and mood swings.
Chemotherapy (also called “chemo”) employs oral or injected drugs to kill cancer cells. These drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body, making the treatment useful for cancers that have spread to distant organs. For breast cancer, chemo is most often used before surgery to shrink large tumors so that a lumpectomy can be performed instead of a mastectomy. It is also often used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells and lower the risk of recurrence. It is the primary treatment for breast cancers that have spread (metastasized).
Because chemo kills some normal cells in addition to malignant ones, it can cause side effects that vary depending on the type of drug used. These include, but are not limited to, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, hair loss, mouth sores, changes in menstrual cycle and infertility. It can also cause low white blood cell and platelet counts resulting in higher risk of infection and easy bruising/bleeding.
This treatment uses natural or synthetic drugs to help the body’s own immune system fight the cancer. Biological therapy is sometimes called biological response modifier (BRM) therapy or immunotherapy.
Radiation that kills or shrinks tumors may be used alone or in combination with other treatments. For breast cancer, radiation is often used to shrink tumors prior to surgery or to kill any cancer cells that remain in the breast, chest wall or underarm afterwards. It can also be used to treat tumors in difficult locations. Radiation therapy can be delivered internally or externally. Side effects are usually limited to irritation around the radiation site, although many patients also report fatigue.
Brachytherapy With brachytherapy, low-dose radioactive seeds (pellets) are placed into the breast tissue, next to the cancer. The seeds give off small amounts of radiation over several weeks. This radiation method carries small risks associated with seed migration within the body.
Your Breast Cancer Treatment Partner
At Century Cancer Centers, we offer patients a variety of treatment options, including cutting-edge therapies such as IMRT/IGRT that may not be widely available in other treatment centers. Regardless of the treatment path, we pride ourselves on providing each patient with the best outpatient experience in the most comfortable atmosphere. Treating breast cancer can be a complicated process, so our personal Cancer Navigators help guide each patient through their journey.
Century Cancer Centers Breast Cancer Treatments Services
Quick and painless, external-beam radiation has long been used to destroy cancer cells. The latest methods—Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) and Image-Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT)—provide the most advanced technology for fighting breast cancer. Used alone or together, these therapies allow higher doses of radiation to be delivered with greater precision and accuracy without destroying surrounding, healthy tissue. For instance, they are extremely helpful with the challenges of left-sided breast cancer, where traditional radiation therapy presents risks to the heart and lungs.
For patients, IMRT/IGRT means:
- more effective treatment focused on cancer cells
- less radiation exposure to normal tissue
- potentially fewer and milder side effects
- treatment for some tumors that couldn’t previously be treated by radiation
How IMRT Works
IMRT is a specialized radiation therapy that uses powerful treatment planning software to calculate precise beam angles, shapes and exposure times tailored to each tumor. The radiation beam can be broken up into many smaller beams and the intensity of each small beam can be adjusted individually. This may allow a higher dose of radiation to be delivered to the tumor with less risk to nearby healthy tissue, potentially decreasing the duration of treatment and increasing the chance of a cure.
How IGRT Works
Tumors can move during a course of treatment. IGRT combines imaging and treatment capabilities on a single machine. This way, tumors can be tracked between, as well as during, treatments, allowing radiation to be focused more precisely. Images captured before each radiation session are compared to previous sessions so that clinicians know the exact location of the tumor each time. IGRT software also accounts for breathing and motion during treatment, ensuring the radiation stays focused on the tumor.
What to Expect During Treatment
The treatment process is similar for IMRT and IGRT.
First, we’ll schedule an appointment with a radiation oncologist. During this visit, we’ll perform a simulation of the treatment. You will be positioned on the treatment machine the same way you will be for actual treatment. The radiation oncologist will determine the need to use an immobilization device (such as a cast, mold or headrest) to keep you in the same position during treatment. Then, we’ll take a CT scan to precisely map your anatomy. Using information from the CT scan, the radiation therapist will mark the area(s) to be treated, either on your skin or on the immobilization device. Simulation sessions take 30 to 60 minutes and may be repeated at intervals throughout your course of treatment.
Next, your radiation oncologist and treatment team will design a treatment plan tailored to you. They will use information from the simulation session, anatomical maps obtained from the CT scan, previous medical tests and, in many cases, sophisticated treatment planning software.
For breast cancer, radiation therapy is typically administered 5 days per week for a total of 30 to 33 treatments. However, your treatment team will determine the best course of treatment for you. During each session, positioning takes from 5 to 15 minutes. Actual treatment time lasts about 10 minutes and is painless. The radiation is delivered using a machine called a “linear accelerator” which generates x-rays or photon radiation. The linear accelerator moves so that patients can lie comfortably without being re-positioned during treatment.
The treatment room is spacious, and you will not be completely enclosed by equipment. A radiation therapist will position you to ensure successful treatment then go to an adjoining control room. From there, he or she will monitor you closely during radiation treatment using video cameras. The therapist can hear you at all times, and the treatment can be immediately discontinued if you feel uncomfortable or ill. If IMRT/IGRT are employed, the therapist may move the machine or treatment table during treatment to best target the exact area of the tumor. Once each treatment is complete, you can return to your normal daily activities.
A follow up exam with your radiation oncologist will be scheduled after your last treatment to discuss side effects. From there, your physicians will determine the proper course of ongoing treatment.