What to know about breast cancer and proton therapy

10:44 AM, Oct 11, 2018

Breast cancer incidence rates have been dropping in the U.S. since 2000, according to Breastcancer.org, but about 1 in 8 American women will still be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Luckily, men and women have a far better prognosis today than in yesteryear with medical advances and increased awareness of what causes cancer. Today, researchers have found that avoiding or quitting smoking, early cancer detection and improved treatments have contributed to the improved mortality rate for breast cancer, a rate which has been improving since 1989.

Self-exams save lives

Doctors have made concerted efforts to educate women about the dangers and signs of breast cancer, encouraging them to perform regular self-examinations to watch for lumps, bumps, redness, pain or other irregularities.

"Women who have regular mammograms and perform self-exams have a greater chance of detecting breast cancer earlier," said Peter Y. Chen, M.D., a Beaumont Health radiation oncologist. "Knowing what to look for and performing thorough self-examinations on a regular basis saves lives. If you don’t know how to check yourself, talk with your doctor.

Early detection means earlier treatment

The five-year survival rate for women whose breast cancer is detected at stage I is nearly 100 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. With stage II the survival rate is 93 percent, and a stage III the rate is 72 percent so the sooner the treatment can begin, the better.

Depending on the severity of the cancer, treatment may include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Surgery may include lumpectomy (removal of part of the breast) or mastectomy (removal of all breast tissue). Chemotherapy is a regimen of drugs that circulate through the body and destroys cancer cells by preventing them from growing an dividing. Radiation may be used before surgery to shrink the tumor (this is rare) or after surgery to destroy any remaining microscopic tumor cells and decrease the possibility of recurrence.




Traditional treatments may result in long-term side effects

The methods used to eradicate cancer can be hard on the body during and after treatment. While most side effects subside soon after treatment, some linger or may show up decades after the treatment is over.

Traditional radiation therapy involves irradiation of the entire breast, which leads to a risk of affecting surrounding tissues and organs.

"According to the American Heart Association, some breast cancer therapies might damage the heart. This cardiovascular injury may result in significant lifestyle changes and could be life-threatening in some breast cancer survivors," said Chen. "That’s why, for some women, proton therapy can be a better option than conventional radiation."

Proton therapy protects the heart and lungs

Proton therapy is a relatively recent medical breakthrough that offers an alternative to X-ray radiation "that offers greater precision to destroy cancerous cells and spare adjacent healthy tissue with fewer side effects," explained Chen.

The positively charged atomic particles are accurately focused at the site of the cancer cells, and there is no exit dose that could harm surrounding tissues. It has also been used to treat recurrent cancers because of its lower risk of long-term side effects.

As it is still a new treatment, proton therapy is available at less than 30 locations around the U.S. Michigan’s first and only operational proton therapy center is located at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak. You can find more information about proton therapy and a map of centers at proton-therapy.org.

Schedule a consultation at Beaumont Hospital today to meet with a care team that can plan the right treatment for you.

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