Patients benefit from new breath-hold technique at Cape Breton Cancer Centre
In July 2015, Ivy Seymour of Neil’s Harbour received news that no wants to hear. Her regular mammogram had shown a very small mass in her left breast.
“I was overwhelmed when I got the news that it was cancer,” says Seymour, a 62-year-old custodian who works at Cabot Educational Centre.
Following surgery to remove the mass, Seymour had to undergo radiation therapy at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre in Sydney. The centre’s radiation team needed a patient to use a new technique aimed at reducing long-term damage to the hearts of some breast cancer patients. Seymour was the patient they were looking for.
“I was a good candidate for this treatment. I was healthy, active, and I don’t smoke,” says Seymour who has always been conscientious in monitoring her health.
The technique is called breath-hold technique. Patients are instructed to take a deep breath and hold it while radiation is delivered to the target area.
“By taking a deep breath, you increase the distance between the chest wall and the heart,” says Dr. Waseem Sharieff, Radiation Oncologist. “This reduces the heart’s exposure to radiation and ultimately reduces possible long-term heart damage. “
Due to the close proximity of the heart to the treatment area in left-breast cancer cases, the technique is used to protect the heart from undue stress that could result in cardiac problems even after the patient has completed their treatment.
“Initially, there wasn’t a lot of awareness,” says Dr. Sharieff. “Then research began to show that for years after radiation treatment, some patients were at greater risk of heart attack or other long-term cardiac complications. By using breath-hold technique, the goal is to reduce the risk of complications of a heart attack or heart disease.”
Dr. Sharieff notes that this type of treatment is not necessary or ideal for all breast cancer patients. It is ideal for patients specifically with left-breast cancer who have the capability to hold their breath for 20-30 seconds and fall under the age of 70.
The technology around the technique is set up so that radiation is only delivered while the patient holds their breath, and stops automatically when the patient releases his/her breath. For Seymour, the decision to use this technique was an easy one.
“The technique really puts patients in control of their own treatment,” she says. “The team at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre instilled confidence in me and helped me along the way through my treatments.”
Seymour, who had no known history of cancer in her family, underwent 16 consecutive days of treatment and now has regular follow-ups to monitor her progress. She says that early detection is key and that her own diligence in self-assessment played a big part in the early detection of her cancer. Dr. Sharieff agrees.
“With early detection on the rise, outcomes for patients are improving,” says Dr. Sharieff. “For this reason, it is important to take every measure to protect other organs in the body that could be subjected to undue stress as patients undergo radiation therapy.”
The Cape Breton Cancer Centre is the first in Atlantic Canada to adopt the technique. So far 11 patients at the centre have used it. The centre’s radiation team will continue to monitor the technique’s impact on patients’ heart health even after their cancer treatment is finished.