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Five days instead of five weeks: A less-invasive breast cancer therapy

Just like every other woman, I've read the statistics about breast cancer. I'm now in that age group where I could be the one in 28 who develop the disease, so I'm paying a lot more attention to what my treatment choices might be.

Palo Alto, Calif. resident Anne Broderick had many more reasons to worry about cancer: Her mother, grandmother, aunt, two sisters and a brother all faced the disease. Broderick watched all of them pass through the standard treatments of their day‒ large incision surgeries, chemotherapy and weeks of radiation therapy - all with their unpleasant list of side effects.So when Broderick was herself diagnosed with breast cancer, she thought her treatment would mimic what she’d seen with her family members. But she was pleasantly surprised when her Stanford oncologist, Kate Horst, MD, told her she was a good candidate for a new abbreviated form of radiation therapy that would take just five days instead of five weeks. “The thought of going every day, five days a week for seven weeks was just overwhelming," Broderick told me for an article in Stanford Hospital Health Notes. "When I was presented with this shorter option, I just grabbed at it… When Dr. Horst explained it to me, it made a lot of sense."

As more and more medical treatment moves from large incisions to small and, in some cases, no incision at all, radiation has been moving along the same path. With machines like the CyberKnife, developed by a Stanford physician, radiation is no longer like taking a long soaking bath, but more like a quick dip. As I explain in my story:

One approach, which takes place during surgery, is called intraoperative radiotherapy. Another method uses external radiation therapy after surgery.  Both approaches focus radiation beams only on the margins of the lumpectomy cavity, instead of the whole breast.

It’s a technique, Horst said, that’s allows patients “to continue to be physically active, to keep working and to take care of their families.”

Stanford was one of the first medical centers to offer these newer forms of radiation therapy, which have shown great promise but are still in their early days. “Physicians knew it was out there," Frederick Dirbas, MD, who leads the breast disease management group at the Stanford Women’s Cancer Center. "Most said it’s been tried and didn’t work. We decided we were going to do this in a way that would make it work."

As for Broderick, except for the week of her radiation, she worked throughout her treatment. Seven years after her treatment, she remains free of cancer.

Previously: Partial breast irradiation could sidestep side effects of traditional radiation therapy
Photo of Broderick by Norbert von der Groben

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