Health Team

Patients may benefit from shorter radiation treatment

Posted April 2, 2009 4:40 p.m. EDT
Updated April 2, 2009 6:34 p.m. EDT

— When women are diagnosed with breast cancer, the treatments that could save their lives can also be a major life disruption. However, new research has revealed a way to help women return to their families and jobs quicker.

Last summer, Annie Brown, 71, learned she had early-stage breast cancer. Surgeons removed the tumor and were able to spare her breast, but Brown had to take chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“I had to ask somebody to take me all the time. I have my drivers' license, but I can't drive much,” Brown said.

That was why Brown chose a shortened course of radiation at Durham Regional Hospital. Standard treatment lasts about six weeks, but Brown opted for a four-week treatment with a slightly higher dose of radiation.

“It means they're much more quickly able to get back to their normal routines, back to their families, their jobs, able to put their breast cancer treatment behind them and start looking at themselves as survivors,” said Dr. Bridget Koontz, medical director of radiation oncology services at Durham Regional Hospital.

A 12-year Canadian study looked specifically at women with early-stage breast cancer – defined as cases where the disease hadn't spread to the lymph nodes, and the tumor was small enough for a lumpectomy. Researchers wanted to find out if radiation treatment could be shortened in these cases.

Koontz said the study looked at the cancer recurrence rates of both radiation treatments and compared the side effects. With the shorter course, higher doses of radiation increased the risk of breast skin irritation, such as sunburn.

“But that heals after the radiation is over and there were no differences in the long-term effects,” Koontz said.

”It was fine with me. It just didn't hurt and I did fine with it,” Brown said.

In addition to saving 14 days of hospital visits, Brown also saved some money on the shorter treatment. She said she is just thankful to have the treatments and cancer behind her.

“So I really feel like I have been blessed, I really do,” Brown said.

About half the women at Durham Regional Hospital chose the shorter treatment. Those who didn't may have been concerned about the higher dose and side effects. But given the study's results, more women will likely choose the shorter course now, and it has become the standard treatment at Durham Regional and other Duke-affiliated breast cancer treatment centers.