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Scripps offers new breast cancer treatment

A new medical technology known as Mammosite is showing promise for making treatment for breast cancer far less time consuming and painful.

During a Mammosite treatment session, a balloon catheter is inserted at the site of the tumor and radiation seeds are released. Women must be treated twice a day for only five days, as opposed to standard radiation treatment, which lasts for seven weeks. However, Mammosite provides the same amount of radiation as standard treatment.

Dr. Pamela Kurtzhals, who is a breast surgeon at Scripps Green clinic and has treated more than 125 patients with Mammosite, said the primary advantage is that patients can go about their daily lives because it consumes so little time.

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“No one wants to live through cancer for seven weeks if they don’t have to,” said Kurtzhals. “You want to get to the surgery and feel like you’re done and that you can get on with your life.”

In addition, the new process allows physicians to treat more patients.

The small time frame of Mammosite was the deciding factor for Charlotte Lemen, 86, of Santee, who chose to use Mammosite when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts in August of last year. Her sister had also lived through breast cancer, so she was familiar with how draining treatment could be.

“We went five days in a row, and we went twice a day,” Lemen said, whose daughter and son-in-law accompanied her. “So far, I’m thinking we made a good choice because we got it all over with at once.”

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Lemen also said that because the treatment is relatively new, she hopes her electing to use it will help other women.

Another advantage of Mammosite is its significant lack of side effects. There is a small risk of infection because a catheter is used, but Kurtzhals said that the risk is less than 1 percent. In fact, she has seen only one case of infection in her career, which was treated successfully with antibiotics.

Lemen experienced very few side effects as well. “As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that I can say is that I was just tired,” she said. The lack of side effects also allowed her to continue to be independent as she lives alone.

“I’m able to do my daily activities and take care of my own little place,” she said.

“You would think, it would be uncomfortable, but I have had very few patients complain,” Kurtzhals said.

What is more, “when you look at the five-year data, it has a little bit better cosmetic outcome than standard radiation,” said Kurtzhals.

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Kurtzhals said that Mammosite originated in Michigan, where many women with breast cancer lived far from where they were able to receive treatment. Since then, Mammosite has grown tremendously in popularity, even though Kurtzhals estimated that 90 percent of patients still use standard radiation. Thirty-five thousand women in the United States have been treated with Mammosite.

Kurtzhals said she thinks it will grow even more in popularity as more surgeons become trained in the procedure and the general public becomes more aware of it.

Because Mammosite is relatively new, data only exists for the 10 years it has been used. As a result, some breast cancer patients are wary. Younger patients may be particularly hesitant to use it because long-term statistics are unavailable.

Most breast cancer patients are eligible for Mammosite, mostly due to the fact that breast cancer currently tends to be diagnosed in the early stages. If a patient has cancer in more than one quadrant of the breast or the tumor is large, as it tends to be in the later stages, then it is unlikely they are eligible, Kurtzhals said.

Women with very small breasts also may not be able to use it. She estimated that about five or six out of 10 patients are candidates for Mammosite.

Kurtzhals also stressed the importance of mammograms and early screenings as the most important tools to fight breast cancer. Finding cancer early allows the patient and doctor to have the most options for treatment.

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“The smaller the cancer is, the more options we have, like Mammosite,” she said. “There’s no reason why we can’t have all these options for you, as long as you are on top of your health.”