New breast cancer treatment minimizes effects of radiation

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- A new procedure being done at one Valley hospital is changing the way doctors treat breast cancer. It cuts down on both radiation and anxiety for patients.

The Xoft Intraoperative Radiation Therapy is basically two surgeries in one. Doctors first cut out the cancer then use an X-ray to help make sure it does not come back.

Arleen Kraynak still remembers the day a small lump showed up in her mammogram because it was a visit she almost skipped.

“I figured all these years I had been going and I didn’t feel that I would need it anymore,” she recalled.

She also remembers the anxiety that came with her diagnosis: “That is even scarier because I told (the doctor) right away, 'If I have to have chemo, I am not going to have it.' “

Kraynak ended up in the care of Dr. Christa Corn, who says even though doctors are good at cutting out cancer, radiation is needed to keep it from coming back.

”So it is like weeds in the garden," she explained. "You pull the weeds, right? You know you get them, you get the roots, and they come back. If you put Roundup on those weeds, you prevent them from coming back much greater.”

That can mean radiation on the entire breast five times a week for five weeks, with some inherent risks.

“It is close to other structures like heart, lungs, ribs and, of course, skin," Corn said.

Skin burns are not uncommon, but Corn says it goes beyond the physical side effects.

“And that is a lot of time and money and copays and energy and anxiety for these women," she said.

That's why she offered Kraynak a different choice.

“It is two operations in one,” Kraynak said.

It is called Xoft Intraoperative Radiation Therapy, and Abrazo Health’s Phoenix Baptist Hospital has the only device in Phoenix to do it. 

"And so what happens is when the patient is asleep, I take the tumor out," Corn explained.

Then, often through the same incision, Corn puts in a small balloon and fills it with saline.

“I mold the breast tissue around this balloon,” Corn continued, “so that it completely conforms to the balloon.”

A radiation oncologist then slips a small wand into the balloon. Embedded in the tip of the wand is a little X-ray tube.

“This little X-ray source is what emits X-ray radiation,” Corn said, showing 3TV the tiny tube which fits on the tip of her finger. “And we just back it out of that balloon slowly and radiate that whole cavity."

The radiation extends a mere half-inch from the balloon.

"So when they start the radiation process, what I need protected is absolutely protected," Corn said.

The radiation takes about 12 minutes.

“They come in, have their minimally invasive surgery, minimally invasive radiation, and then generally have a hormone pill and that's it; that's their treatment,” Corn said.

Kraynak says she was a little sore the next day, but then she was back on the move.

“By Monday, I was in my car, driving around, going shopping and doing things," she said.

But after this, she never leaves home without a pamphlet on mammograms which she shares with almost anyone she meets.

”I show this to them because I want them to do it early," Kraynak said.

Early detection is critical because this procedure can be used only on small tumors. Still, Corn says tens of thousands of women nationwide are candidates.