One Day Breast Cancer Cure Gains Popularity in Europe
Sounds like a rather sick infomercial, doesn’t it? “Cure your breast cancer in a single afternoon! Order now, and pay just….” Oh, maybe $35,000 or so, plus “handling.”
Strangely enough, though, Europeans have had access to this single-day cancer treatment for years. And it’s gradually making its way through the vetting process here in the United States, where it’s currently in phase III clinical trials – the final step prior to the FDA approval process.
So, what is this “miracle cure?”
Intraoperative Radiation Therapy (IORT), a type of radiation that’s performed right on the operating table, using electrons rather than the standard low-dose X-ray.
Granted, IORT is only suitable in very specific cases: in women with low-grade (non-aggressive) breast cancer, smaller tumors, and with no spread outside the breast.
But right there, that covers about 20% of women diagnosed with breast cancer: those with DCIS or LCIS, where the cancer hasn’t yet left the milk ducts or lobules.
And there are a significant percentage of women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer (invasive ductal or invasive lobular cancer) who are still considered early stage: the tumor is small, with no lymph node involvement.
For these women, IORT might be just what the doctor ordered – or orders, sometime in the near future.
And how does it work?
Currently, when a woman has a lumpectomy (a.k.a. breast conservation surgery), she faces 6 weeks or so of post-surgery radiation, to eliminate as many renegade cancer cells as possible. For most women, this treatment knocks cancer out for good. In fact, for women with non-invasive cancers, about 99.8% never have a recurrence. For all intents and purposes, they’re cured.
But those 6 weeks of radiation can be a huge challenge. Many women find the treatment itself difficult; severely burned skin and mounting fatigue can wreak havoc with day-to-day life. Some women have to take time off from work; some even have to quit their jobs.
In addition, if the radiation facility is far from home, a simple 15-minute treatment can turn into a full-day marathon. And an expensive one at that, given the price of gas.
So standard radiation is, at best, a 6-week inconvenience. At its worst, it can be a life-changing disaster.
IORT limits radiation to a single treatment, delivered right on the operating table during lumpectomy surgery. The surgeon removes the tumor, and checks to see that the cancer hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes. S/he then places an inflated balloon into the tumor bed, and delivers an intense radiation treatment directly to the area most likely to harbor any remaining cancer cells. The treatment lasts anywhere from 2 minutes to 30 minutes.
At its conclusion, the balloon is removed, the breast sewn up, and that’s it: end of treatment. Most women feel no worse than if they’d had a simple lumpectomy. Many are able to resume their normal life immediately.
Up till recently, logistics had prevented IORT from moving into the mainstream. Operating rooms simply aren’t set up to deliver radiation. And the chance of infection involved with wheeling a patent from surgery to radiation and back, mid-operation, is high. But mobile radiation devices, developed within the past couple of years, can now be brought right into the operating room – problem solved.
What’s the down side? Lack of data accumulated over time. While IORT has been used to treat various cancers in Europe for over 30 years, it’s only in the past few years it’s been widely used for breast cancer. The long-term results, though promising so far, just aren’t there.
Dr. Olga Ivanov, medical director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, Illinois, is helping to pioneer the treatment in this country, along with radiation oncologist Dr. Adam Dickler. Ivanov, interviewed recently in the Chicago Tribune, had this to say: “As more [institutions] get on board and we accumulate patients and see five years of data, for early-stage breast cancer, this will be the way to go. The patient will be demanding this treatment.”
A 1-day breast cancer cure? Indeed, for those of us faced with 6 long weeks of radiation, the demand is already there.