A new breast cancer treatment that focuses cancer-killing radiation at specific breast tumor sites instead of the whole breast could drastically shorten the time women suffering from the disease undergo radiation therapy. Current radiation treatments take six weeks; the new procedure would take just one week. Thousands of women are already seeking the shorter treatments, although there is no evidence to date to show that the process is as effective as the standard six-week treatment or to indicate which patients would be ideal candidates for it. But the National Cancer Institute is racing to start a study of 6,000 patients this fall to test those questions, seeking answers before patient demand for the easier therapy becomes overwhelming.
Already the new radiation approach, called partial-breast radiation, is rapidly gaining in popularity. More than 2,200 patients have been treated by one method of partial-breast radiation alone--a machine called the MammoSite that places a radioactive seed inside the breast. Some 267 health care centers now offer MammoSite, and untold others offer other forms of partial-breast radiation. Partial-breast radiation takes only about five days, packing in larger doses because a much smaller amount of tissue is being treated. Doctors either focus standard external radiation equipment to where the tumor was excised, or they use a method called brachytherapy--inserting radioactive seeds into the tumor site through spaghetti-like tubes. Doctors can either hand-place the seeds or use MammoSite. Some patients choose these approaches for their convenience, others because they live too far from a radiation facility to make getting the traditional six, sometimes seven weeks of daily treatments doable.
About 70% of the 203,000 U.S. women estimated to be diagnosed with breast cancer this year will qualify for a lumpectomy--removing just the tumor, not the whole breast. Radiation afterward is crucial to kill any stray cancer cells lurking nearby. With proper follow-up care, lumpectomies have proved as good at curing early-stage breast cancer as breast-removing mastectomies are. But because traditional whole-breast radiation takes so long, doctors say many women choose a more disfiguring mastectomy--or forego radiation, thus running a big risk of the cancer returning.