Breast Health

Breath-hold Technique Spares Breast Cancer Patients’ Hearts from Radiation

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For patients undergoing radiation therapy to treat left-sided breast cancer, a new breath-hold technique is now available at Lowell General Hospital that minimizes the heart’s exposure to radiation. When the patient takes a deep breath and holds it during radiation treatment, the lungs expand, moving the chest wall and breast tissue away from the heart.

Called Deep Inspiration Breath Hold (DIBH), the technique has been shown to reduce radiation dose to the heart by as much as 50 percent, without compromising the dose to the breast or chest wall where the cancer had been.

“This is important because studies suggest a link between cardiac dose during left-breast radiation and heart problems – including heart attacks – later in life,” explains Matthew Katz, MD, Medical Director of Radiation Oncology at Lowell General Hospital.

To determine if they are candidates for the breath-hold technique, patients undergoing radiation therapy for left-sided breast cancer at Lowell General are first tested to see if they can hold their breath for 20 seconds. Because breast cancer patients undergo daily radiation treatments for several weeks and two beams of radiation are administered at each session, they must be able to hold their breath twice for 20 seconds during each treatment.

Lowell General utilizes the Varian® Real-time Position Management™ (RPM) System, a video-based motion tracking technology that ensures the patient’s breath holds are consistent during each treatment.

As part of treatment planning, each patient is first scanned breathing normally, then again holding her breath to determine how effectively it expands the lungs and creates space between the heart and the chest wall and breast tissue. “Then we can individualize treatment for each patient,” Dr. Katz notes.

He points out that even if a patient is not a candidate for DIBH, radiation therapy for left-sided breast cancer is still quite safe.

“We’re just trying to minimize risks down the road by manipulating the position of the internal organs to treat a highly curable cancer today,” he says.

Lowell General’s Radiation Oncology Department treated its first patient with left-sided breast cancer using the deep inspiration breath hold technique in February 2014.

“This patient sought us out specifically because this approach to treatment was available here,” Dr. Katz notes. “Until recently, the breath-hold technique was used more at academic medical centers, but we want to ensure our patients have the best possible treatment options, close to home.”

For more information about the deep inspiration breath hold technique at Lowell General Hospital, patients are encouraged to call 978-937-6274.

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