Breast cancer zapped by fast new radiotherapy

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended that a revolutionary (and fast) breast cancer treatment should be offered on the NHS. Intra-operative radiation could eventually replace standard radiation treatment. As the name suggests, it takes place during surgery.

After a tumour is removed, doctors use the intrabeam radiotherapy system to insert a probe into the breast and deliver a concentrated dose of radiation directly to the site of the malignancy. A trial on 2000 women led by a UK team found that this had a similar success rate to traditional radiotherapy, but with the advantage of being far quicker.

Usually patients have to wait a few weeks after the operation and then attend up to 15 treatments, which may cause side effects including fatigue and itchy, painful, or flaking skin. Because it’s less closely targeted, traditional radiotherapy also risks damaging the organs of the chest – the heart, lungs, and oesophagus.

Either type of radiotherapy is only effective for women who are diagnosed early, as it’s focused on a particular area, so isn’t helpful when cancer has spread. But NICE estimates that the new treatment could make life easier for up to 36,000 people as well as saving the NHS around £15m a year. That sounds like a win-win. But cancer experts warn that women who undergo this new treatment will need to be carefully monitored, as we don’t yet know if there are any long-term side-effects.

If, as expected, the government approves the guidance, the treatment should be introduced in England by the end of the year, with Wales and Northern Ireland to follow.

Image via Gerry Lauzon’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley

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