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New Treatment for Breast Cancer

Radiation may become a little easier of thousands of breast cancer patients: Doctors now can target cancer-killing beams just at the tumor site instead of the whole breast, shortening the usual six-week treatment down to five days.

Currently, a major study is under way to prove whether the easier therapy is as effective as the old-fashioned kind, and if so, who is a good candidate and which of three five-day methods works best.

But even before those results are in, Canadian scientists are working to speed treatment still further. They've developed a one-day method, permanently implanting radiation seeds inside the breast to kill stray cancer cells while women go about their normal routines.

It's an exciting time for this new approach, called partial-breast radiation, already fast gaining in popularity even before the National Cancer Institute-funded study to prove how well it works began recruiting volunteers.

Specialist, however, warn that women must carefully weigh the new options, and that the best course for those who want the shorter therapy is to enroll in that study or several others testing the new approaches.

Early stage studies suggest the five-day approaches can work well for at least some patients, but too few women have been tracked for long enough to be sure the partial-breast radiation works as well as standard therapy in preventing the cancer's return.

"Patient's need to understand where we're at," cautions Dr. Frank Vicini of William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, who pioneered the five-day approach and is leading the new NCI study.

Nearly 70 percent of the 200,000 American women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year quality for a lumpectomy- removing just the tumor, not the whole breast. A lumpectomy plus radiation cures early stage breast cancer just as well as breast-removing mastectomies do. Up to a quarter of lumpectomy patients forego radiation treatment altogether, risking a recurrence.

Partial-breast radiation attempts to focus the powerful treatment on just the areas most likely to harbor stray cancer cells, those near the original tumor and most methods do so from inside the breast.

In the NCI study, 3000 patients are being randomly assigned to either the standard six-week radiation or one of three five-day methods.

Interstitial brachytherapy, where thin tubes are inserted through the breast and pellets of radioactive iodine are temporarily placed in the tubes twice a day.

Balloon brachytherapy, given with a machine called the MammoSite, that similarly inserts radioactive pellets into a balloon filling the tumor area.

External radiation focused just to the tumor site.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved a new machine, Xoft Inc.'s Axxent Electronic Brachytherapy System, to deliver partial-breast radiation through a miniature X-ray system, potentially easier for doctors to handle.

To learn more about breast cancer and its treatments, please visit the following websites.

Mammosite® Radiation Therapy System
Allows physicians to deliver radiation from inside the breast following removal of a tumor. This technology enables women to complete radiation therapy in just 5 days.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America
What is Brachytherapy?

National Cancer Institute