Breast cancer patients using their breath to save their hearts

Left-sided cancer patients sparing their hearts from radiation, and long term effects.

Breast cancer patients using their breath to save their hearts

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Cancer can ravage your body, and sometimes the treatment can be as bad as the cancer itself. Powerful radiation can leave lasting effects on the hearts of patients with left side breast cancer. But patients at the Cleveland Clinic are using their own breath to save their heart.

Sarah Panfil, a recruiter from Brunswick, discovered her left-sided breast cancer on her own. It was stage one. She had a mastectomy and chemotherapy, but the fit and active mom was concerned about the long term effects the radiation would have on her heart.

“I was worried I’d be exhausted the entire treatment. I was worried it would impact my lifestyle,” Panfil said.

Patients with breast cancer on their left side are at a higher risk for a heart attack, have an increased rate of cardiac arrhythmia as well as potentially congestive heart failure.

Panfil’s doctor set her up with cardiac sparing breast radiation. The Cleveland Clinic’s Cancer Center program was created to improve breast cancer patient outcomes, while still protecting them from long term side effects to the heart because of its proximity to the cancer, and the radiation used to eradicate it.

Patients use their own breathing to protect her heart.

“I was mind blown. Who would have thought this was an option to preserve your heart? I was fascinated,” Panfil said.

Patients wear nose plugs and mouthpiece and fill up their lungs to create a buffer between their heart and the beam of radiation.

When they reach a threshold, they hold their breath for 15-20 seconds. Radiation is turned on. This happens four to six times a session.

Patients have control, turning the machine on and off by pressing a button.

Heart sparing breast cancer radiation treatment at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center.
Heart sparing breast cancer radiation treatment at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center. (Source: Cleveland Clinic)

Dr. Chirag Shah, Director of Breast Radiation Oncology, says they reduce the dosage from about 4 units of radiation, to an average of 1 unit of radiation. The sessions are longer, but total amount of radiation is the same.

“That’s the beauty, we’re giving the same amount of dose to the areas at risk, while drastically reducing the dose to the heart,”

Dr. Shah says patients, like Panfil, are excited to be directly involved in their own care.

“It made such a big difference, gave me peace of mind and made me more comfortable. So it was huge,” Panfil said.

Shah says if patients don’t respond well to the breathing approach they have two other ways to spare your heart from harmful radiation.

“We also use different techniques that use less penetrating radiation to reduce dose close to the heart and lungs. And we use the computer to help block out pieces of the heart that may be close,” Dr. Shah said.

Panfil is one of more than 100 patients the Cleveland Clinic’s Cancer Center through this program each year.

She says she feels great, and is thrilled to say she's cancer free.

“I feel like I’m stronger than ever.,” she said.

New data also indicates that doctors should be treating the lymph nodes that sit next to the sternum or breast plate, so patients with right sided breast cancer are also starting to benefit from this program.

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