This year more than a quarter of a million women were told: “you have breast cancer.” The good news is continuing advances mean more treatment options like the GammaPod. This FDA-approved treatment was developed by doctors and scientist at the University of Maryland to change the way women with early-stage breast cancer are treated.
The Director of the Maryland Medical Center Department of Radiation Oncology Dr. Elizabeth Nichols explains the GammaPod was created in a response to all women with early stages of breast cancer being treated the same, whether they have a low-risk or a high-risk tumor. Many of those women are receiving more treatment than they actually need. The GammaPod was developed to deliver radiation with fewer side effects in a shorter timeframe.
The GammaPod is a stereotactic radiotherapy system, the first of its kind, offering high-dose radiation to breast cancer tumors while minimizing the damage to healthy tissues and organs like the heart and the lungs.
The Doctors are joined by breast cancer surgeon Dr. Kristi Funke to discuss the GammaPod with Dr. Nichols, who is on Skype. Dr. Nichols explains one of the things that makes the system unique is that they have an immobilization device that keeps the breast still during treatment and as a result, the treatment is noninvasive and more effective.
Dr. Funke elaborates that this machine is a version of accelerated partial breast radiation and it allows for more concentrated radiation to a high-risk zone for occurrence, since in most cases when cancer returns, it is within a centimeter or two of the initial cancer.
There are also fewer side effects and the GammaPod is more convenient because treatment takes less time than typical radiation. Dr. Funke explains in the early stages of breast cancer they typically do between 15-33 days of treatment, Monday through Friday, every day. Dr. Nichols says with the GammaPod they deliver five sessions every other day and hope in the future to be able to do it all in one session.
Plastic surgeon Dr. Andrew Ordon brings up the plus of having less collateral damage to the tissue itself will make reconstruction down the line easier. Earlier Dr. Nichols had mentioned with typical radiation many women experience fatigue and skin reactions and they seem to have less of these with the GammaPod. Dr. Funke adds there are many side effects to typical radiation including collateral damage to the underlying lungs and heart which this machine may be able to tremendously spare or avoid.
Dr. Nichols says it always depends on the location of the lumpectomy cavity and the breast as well but in many women, they are finding no dose of radiation goes to the heart and lung which they believe will minimize long-term side effects. Additionally, when you do external beam and the whole breast is hit with radiation, women can have breast swelling, both temporarily or permanently, and their skin can also get a ruddy brown color that itches a lot. There is often nerve pain too. “If this reduces those side effects, this is a lifelong improvement not just temporary during radiation but it would really improve a woman’s experience forever after the radiation,” says Dr. Funke.
Currently, the GammaPod is only in two locations. It is at the University of Maryland Medical Center where it was first developed as well as the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
OB/GYN Dr. Nita Landy asks if Dr. Nichols think they can use the GammaPod technology in other ways in the future. Dr. Nichols believes they will. She shares in the very near future they plan to conduct a clinical trial looking at using radiation therapy prior to surgery. She explains tumors are often very small but doctors do a very large lumpectomy that may or may not be needed so they want to deliver radiation therapy before surgery in hopes of eliminating the tumor beforehand. They are hoping to identify a group of women that they can remove the tumor with the radiation alone and if found, that could really revolutionize breast cancer care for patients.