When Linda Thompson was considering her options for treating the breast cancer she was diagnosed with in November 2009, convenience wasn’t at the top of her list of “must haves.”
The Moro resident just wanted the cancer gone, and if achieving that goal required a long series of long drives to Celilo Cancer Center at Mid-Columbia Medical Center, she was prepared to rack up the miles.
But that didn’t make Thompson any less grateful to learn Celilo Cancer Center offered an alternative to about 2,500 miles worth of travel over six weeks of daily radiation treatments.
Thompson was one of the first Celilo Cancer Center patients to benefit from a procedure now available to many women that dramatically shortens the radiation therapy process. Patients who qualify for “brachytherapy” benefit from an internal radiation treatment regimen that lasts only five days, compared with the six weeks required for external radiation therapy.
The treatment involves placing tiny plastic catheters in the breast, after a tumor or mass is surgically removed. Radioactive implants are delivered through the catheters and connected for a brief period with brachytherapy equipment.
“Using this internal method we are able to deliver higher doses of radiation to very defined areas of the breast without affecting surrounding tissue,” says Keith Stelzer, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of radiation oncology at Celilo Cancer Center.
The stronger, more precisely directed doses allow for significantly shorter treatment times. Treatments occur twice daily for five days, last only about 15 minutes each and are painless.
Dr. Stelzer, surgeon Ann Harris, M.D., of Mid-Columbia Surgical Specialists, and Steven Fu, Celilo’s medical director of medical oncology, work closely to determine which patients are candidates for brachytherapy and to coordinate their care, along with breast care coordinator Melodi Johnson.
Dr. Harris performs the breast surgery and prepares the site for radiation therapy, and Dr. Stelzer plans and oversees the radiation treatment.
“A combination of criteria are considered to determine if a patient is what we call either a good or cautionary candidate,” Dr. Stelzer says. “If a patient falls into either of those two categories, we always talk to them about the option of having brachytherapy.”
When Thompson learned she was a candidate for the procedure, the decision was a no-brainer, she says.
“I had a friend from Sherman County who had the traditional six weeks of radiation therapy, so I knew how taxing that was living this far away,” she says. “Brachytherapy was a wonderful option for me. I was even able to continue working every day of my treatment. I would just drive into The Dalles for my morning treatment, drive back to work, then drive in again in the afternoon for my second treatment.”
Thompson adds that it helped considerably to have the generous support of her employer, the Sherman County Health District, and her fellow employees at Moro Medical Clinic.
That shorter treatment time of brachytherapy is more than just a gas and time saver. For many women diagnosed with breast cancer, radiation therapy has been an effective, and far less physically and emotionally taxing, alternative to mastectomy. However, Dr. Harris says, many women still see mastectomies as the preferred option when compared with a long regimen of external radiation therapy.
"Many women are basing their decision for mastectomy on the availability and/or convenience of radiation therapy rather than medical necessity,” she says. “Having brachytherapy available to Celilo Cancer Center patients helps ensure we are making decisions about their cancer care based on sound medical reasoning rather than matters of convenience.”
Thompson says she was grateful the option was available to her. “I would definitely recommend brachytherapy to anyone who was a candidate for it, no matter where she lived,” Thompson says. “Since the treatment was contained to such a small area, there was no soreness or any cosmetic effects at all. I can’t say enough good things about it.”