Breath Hold: New Treatment for Left-Sided Breast Cancers

When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, your mind focuses on your health and how you are going to fight.

If the diagnosis is to the left breast, however, patients may not be thinking about how close it is to the heart. But the Radiation Oncology Department at Hahne Regional Cancer Center does.

Hahne recently has introduced a new treatment technique – breath hold – for patients with left-sided breast cancers. “Not all patients benefit from breath hold, but all left breast patients are evaluated to see if they would benefit,” Dr. Grae Schuster, radiation oncologist at Hahne, said. “For about two out of three patients, breath hold will reduce the radiation dose to the heart and may decrease the risk of future radiation-induced heart problems, such as coronary artery disease and heart attacks.”

Hahne’s breath hold capabilities is one reason Barbara Mueller, 76, of Cooksburg chose Hahne Regional Cancer Center for her treatments.

Mueller was diagnosed with breast cancer after a mammogram showed something small that was not there before. The “something” was biopsied and found to be a pre-invasive breast cancer.

Mueller is all too familiar with breast cancer as she was the first assistant to a breast surgeon in the Pittsburgh area for 11 years of her 53 years as a registered nurse.

“The location of the lesion concerned me,” Mueller said, “It was right over my heart.” Three years ago, Mueller had a heart attack because of a complete blockage in a coronary artery. She knew of the 2013 British study that found radiation for breast cancer slightly increases a women’s risk for heart problems later. Because the heart is near the left breast, it could be exposed to some of the radiation.

Mueller also saw it first-hand. Her friend was treated 20 years ago for breast cancer on her left side, and in later years, the friend had heart problems that eventually led to her passing.

Having moved to Cooksburg after retirement, Mueller investigated her options for radiation treatments for herself. She looked for a place close to home with state-of-the-art equipment that would suit her needs and offer breath hold capabilities. “I realized there was a center here; I looked into it and was impressed.”

How is breath hold done? The two-thirds of patients who benefit from the technique are required to hold their breath for 20-25 seconds during radiation treatments. By holding a certain amount of air in the lungs, the heart is moved out of the path of the radiation beam.

To do this accurately, patients have a small optical sensor placed on their chest while lying on the treatment table. A computer tracks the position of this sensor. The machine will not deliver any radiation unless the chest is in the right position.

“The radiation therapists work with the patient to coach them to obtain optimal results,” Jim Miller, manager of Radiation Therapy at Hahne, said. “Most patients find it easy to master.”

“There were moments they tell you to breathe or to let a little out,” Toni McCracken, 41, of DuBois, said. McCracken is not only a patient but works as a medical assistant at Oncology Hematology Associates of Northern Pennsylvania PC - upstairs at Hahne Regional Cancer Center. “It took a few times to get used to it.”

McCracken had a rare type of tumor in her breast that grew quickly. Although it was not cancerous, McCracken had gone through surgery twice before to have similar cells removed. This time, she had tissue as well as the tumor removed, and she went through radiation therapy to make sure it wouldn’t return.

When she heard Schuster explain the breath holding, “it made so much sense,” she said. “I was willing to anything if it was going to help,”

“Because of the number of treatments I would have, I wanted to know how to protect my heart,” Mueller said. “Dr. Schuster told me about holding my breath…it was reassuring.”

Mueller and McCracken are both now finished with treatments, and both have excellent prognoses.

For Mueller, she looks forward to getting back to hiking and her active lifestyle. McCracken, who kept working through her treatments, looks forward to her career, family and – someday – retirement, too.

For more information about this or any cancer treatment, call The Hahne Regional Cancer Center at 814-375-3535.