Breast cancer, under any circumstance, is a sobering diagnosis that affects millions of women each year and becomes a defining moment in their lives. Yet for many, this one moment becomes two, or more, when trace cancer cells lead to recurrences or a need for repeat surgeries.
With help from modern science and technology doctors are finding new ways to help catch – and treat – those stray cells that can be just as devastating as the initial diagnosis. It’s the latest in numerous advancements that have tripled the survival rate in the last 60 years.
New technology can more precisely identify and target cancerous cells. Knowing where the cancerous cells are helps surgeons and radiation oncologists better remove and treat cancerous cells.
Dr. Julie Barone, a breast surgery specialist with SCL Physicians who practices at Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, was the first surgeon in Colorado to use the MarginProbe, a wand-like tool that helps determine if cancerous cells are still present in a patient’s breast after having a tumor removed.
When performing a lumpectomy—removal of a tumor and breast tissue—Dr. Barone says it’s hard to tell if she has removed all cancerous cells around the tumor. The MarginProbe examines the tumor to determine if there are cancer cells on the edge of the specimen. If cancer cells are present on the specimen it’s a good signal that cancer cells remain where the tumor was removed in the breast and that Dr. Barone should remove more tissue.
Dr. Barone says getting this information more quickly helps avoid surgery to go back in and remove cancerous cells later. Additional surgeries are traumatic for patients, and increases treatment costs and risk for infection. Dr. Barone says national rates for multiple surgeries are about 40 percent. Her typical rate is 10 percent, but that has fallen to five percent since she started using this tool.
Another beneficial new technology is the BioZorb, which is an implantable device that allows for more precise breast cancer treatments. The device is a small, dissolvable spiral coil that is implanted into the area where a cancerous tumor was removed.
After a tumor is removed radiation is used to kill lingering cancer cells and Dr. Barone says this can cut risk of cancer recurrence in half. Targeting the cells, however, is not easy.
“It’s a difficult job that the radiation oncologists have because often times they will see a patient after a breast surgery, maybe many months later when the area where the cancer was has healed and changed,” says Dr. Barone. “They cannot actually figure out exactly where the tumor was sitting in the breast.”
But now the BioZorb creates a 3-D marker of where the tumor was so radiation oncologists know exactly where to apply radiation to eliminate trace cancer cells. For patients who require routine mammograms, the device also shows physicians exactly where to look for any future issues. This precision should help reduce risk of cancer recurrence.
“It’s sort of like eyes on the inside so they can see where the tumor was,” says Dr. Barone.