Radioactive seeds used to fight breast cancer in Calgary

Doctors in Calgary are using small radioactive seeds, each the size of a grain of rice, to treat low-risk breast cancers.

Breast brachytherapy could provide option to the traditional treatment of external radiation beam

An X-ray shows the radioactive seeds implanted in the breast of a cancer patient. (Alberta Health Services)

Doctors in Calgary are using small radioactive seeds, each the size of a grain of rice, to treat low-risk breast cancers.

It's more targeted than radiation and oncologists say the results are just as successful with few side effects.

“This potentially may represent another advancement for breast cancer management,” said radiation oncologist Dr. SirajHusain in a release. “I think targeted treatment is what we’re going to move towards in everything we do.”

It's called breast brachytherapy and about 20 patients are trying it at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

Doctors implant 50-80 radioactive seeds made from the chemical element palladium into the breast around the former tumour site.

The seeds remain in the breast but lose their main radioactivity after about six weeks.

“By not using external radiation beams, skin reaction may be reduced, as will the impact of radiation on other organs, including the lungs and the heart,” said Husain.

“The chance of the breast shrinking or changing shape is also diminished. It also means patients can avoid the daily trips to the hospital over the course of many weeks for traditional radiation treatment. They can carry on with their normal routines.”

Treatment pioneered in Toronto

The treatment was pioneered at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto about 10 years ago. 

Right now only women with tumours smaller than three centimetres qualify for the treatment.

Last month, Doreen Thomson was the first patient to have the treatment in Alberta. Her cancer was discovered after a routine mammogram last spring detected something in the left breast of the 58-year-old financial services manager.

When she woke up her medical team was celebrating and she said she knew it was a success.

“They even had a little cupcake with No. 1 on it for me,” she said in a release.

Thomson was sore at first, but she was soon back at work and then enjoyed a vacation with her husband.

“I do feel like it’s getting better,” she said.

According to the most recent statistics available, breast cancer was the most commonly diagnosed cancer among females in Alberta with about 2,250 cases in 2010.


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