St. Mary’s out to reduce risk in breast cancer treatments

Dr. Julie Carson
Dr. Julie Carson

St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction offers cardiac-sparing therapies designed to treat breast cancer while reducing the risk of heart disease associated with radiation.

“This therapy gives me and my patients a peace of mind that we’re not solving one problem only to create another,” said Dr. Julie Carson, a radiation oncologist at St. Mary’s.

During October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the medical center strives to make people aware not only of the disease, but also detection and treatment.

Carson said one in eight women will develop breast cancer, the most common solid tumor diagnosis in women. “The good news is many more patients today are survivors because of early detection and advanced chemotherapy and radiation therapy techniques. And every day we are working on advancements with both detection and treatment,” she said.

In the past, there was an increased risk for developing heart disease associated with radiation treatment for breast cancer. But advancements have reduced that risk, Carson said. “At St. Mary’s, we offer breast cancer patients cardiac-sparing radiation therapy options to reduce the exposure of the heart to treatment.”

Three techniques are typically combined for heart-sparing radiation treatment, she said: three-dimensional radiation planning, optical surface monitoring system imaging and prone breast radiation. “Every patient and case is different. Having these options to customize treatment plans for each patient is huge for improving outcomes,” she added.

Three-dimensional radiation planning uses computerized tomography scans to ensure radiation beams are aimed directly at affected breast tissue. “This allows me to see exactly where the radiation beam is hitting and how much, if any, of the heart is in the radiation field,” Carlson said.

OSMS imaging allows radiation to activate when a person holds their breath. “When the air fills the patient’s lungs, it separates the heart from the rib cage. That gap minimizes the dose of radiation that can reach the heart,” she said.

Prone breast radiation involves positioning a patient on her stomach to allow the breast tissue to fall away from the chest wall. “We’re taking advantage of gravity. When the tissue falls away from the heart, we reduce the dose of radiation that is capable of reaching the heart,” Carlson said.