Health Team

Radiation research may hold key to rare cancer treatment

Posted January 17, 2014 6:36 p.m. EST
Updated January 17, 2014 6:54 p.m. EST

Standard radiation treatment meant to kill a rare form of breast cancer may make the cancer worse.

The most feared form of the disease, inflammatory breast cancer represents only 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer cases. It tends to be diagnosed at younger ages than other breast cancers, posing the highest risk to African American women.

Duke University researcher Dr. Mark Dewhirst found radiation, intended to kill the cancer, actually stimulates the tumor cells to move.

“This was very surprising to us,” he said. “We didn’t expect to see something like that.”

Dewhirst received $50,000 from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, given by Peter Preston, whose wife, Kathleen Livingston, died after a 13-year battle with the disease.

“My wife had many different kinds of treatments, and yet, it always seemed to come back,” Preston said.

He donated to the foundation to carry out his late wife’s final wish to find an effective treatment for the disease that killed her.

“These tumors are very difficult to treat because they move in dermal lymphatics and spread around the chest,” Dewhirst said. “Sometimes they’ll run up over the shoulder and around the back.”

Dewhirst said understanding the effect of radiation on this cancer is the key to stopping it. He plans to test an existing drug, and if new animal testing works, his research could progress into human trials.

Preston said he believes his donation will deliver a blow to the horrible disease.

“I witnessed the progression of the cancer, and it’s very, very frightening,” he said.