According to the Centers for Disease Control, breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among women, no matter your race. Dr. Nicholas Serrano from Overlake Medical Center spoke to New Day Northwest about how national guidelines in radiotherapy treatment for breast cancer has recently changed.
Although it may seem invasive, radiation is one of the best ways to treat breast cancer.
"Breast cancer really involves multiple disciplinary fields -- surgical oncology, medical oncology, as well as radiation oncology," explained Dr. Serrano. "And radiation really serves to help reduce breast cancer from coming back within the breast or the regional lymph nodes where the breast cancer can spread."
The treatment only targets the breast region, rather than the whole body.
"Our goal is to treat the breast tissue where the tumor was, but also to reduce the side effects to the heart and lungs as much as possible."
Radiation therapy damages the DNA, which is the blueprint for any cell -- whether it be cancerous or just a normal tissue cell. Radiation damages the cancerous DNA until the cell shrivels up and eventually dies.
Recently, the national guidelines on radiotherapy have changed.
Typically, breast radiation therapy is a longer course than therapy for other types of cancers. "A patient can expect in the most conventional setting to have a daily radiation treatment, Monday through Friday, for about six to six and a half weeks," explained Dr. Serrano.
The length and frequency of the treatment almost always comes as a surprise to patients, and is something they need to be counseled on.
"But what's been happening is that in the field of radiation oncology has been looking at shorter treatments that can still provide the same outcomes, same efficacy, but shorten the duration of treatment so that patients don't have to come back as many times."
This works because the dose is slightly increased per day. Patients will get the same biological dose, but it's happening in a shorter period of time.
The new guidelines support a three to four week course of radiation treatment, as opposed to a six week -- but the outcome will be just as effective.
Another positive about this shorter radiotherapy treatment plan is that side-effects appear to be slightly better, according to some of the long-term published trials. We also see less cosmetic changes in the breast, which is better for the patients.
So this new treatment is shorter, has fewer side effects and is just as effective.
Unfortunately, not every patient may be eligible for this type of treatment.
"It's important for anyone who gets a diagnosis of breast cancer to meet with a radiation oncologist to discuss whether or not to be a candidate for this treatment and if that's something their doctor would guide them to," said Dr. Serrano.
Dr. Serrano also said it's important for breast cancer patients to ask their radiologist about emerging technologies in the field and ways to decrease side effects.
At Overlake Medical Center, there are a couple of different things they do to make the patients feel more comfortable and make the treatment less toxic. There, they work with each patient individually to identify their unique situation.
"In some situations, we even have an an available treatment that can get a six week treatment down to one week," explained Dr. Serrano. "It's two treatments a day for five days, but it is something that you know other places around the Pacific Northwest are also offering."
The beauty of technology and working in medicine is that the field is always changing. It could be next month that scientists figure out a new plan that's even better for patients.
It's important for patients to remember how large a process radiotherapy can be, no matter the length of a treatment plan. There are multiple doctors and nurses involved as this can be a very life-changing event for most.
"We pride ourselves at Overlake as being as multidisciplinary as we can -- for making sure we have social workers, nurses, navigators, involved to help people guide them through."
For more information, contact Overlake Medical Center or visit their website.