Sammie Lou Reif says she probably would have postponed radiation if she had to have traditional breast cancer treatment. Traditional treatment would have required her to travel five days a week for radiation, for about six weeks, and miss her nephew’s graduation in the process.
Instead, Reif spent one day receiving the entire course of radiation therapy. She received it while in the operating room at the time of a lumpectomy surgery — eliminating the need for weeks of radiation and travel. Instead of radiating the entire breast, the treatment targets cancer cells and spares healthy tissue.
“Only having to do it one time after my lumpectomy, it was well worth it,” Reif said. “I knew it would be just that area, not the whole breast, so I thought that would be great. The less radiation I could have the better.”
The procedure, intraoperative radiation therapy, is now available in Kansas. Wesley Medical Center is the first hospital in the state to offer the treatment option, which is still considered a “relatively new way to give radiation therapy,” according to an article at Breastcancer.org.
The system cost Wesley $500,000. Reif, who is from Ellinwood, was one of the first patients to go through the procedure May 31.
“When I see these folks after they come back for their post op evaluation, I can’t tell they’ve had radiation,” said Dr. Diane Hunt, breast surgeon at Wesley.
Studies have shown that this procedure has a similar breast cancer survival rate as standard radiation therapy. It causes fewer skin side effects.
However, women who had intraoperative radiation therapy had higher rates of cancer returning to the same breast, according to some studies.
Wesley has used the procedure on only a handful of people and is using rigid criteria to determine who is eligible, doctors said. The cancer must be small and cannot have spread to the lymph nodes. Patients must be over 50. Although Medicare does cover intraoperative radiation therapy, several insurance companies do not.
Hunt said patients sometimes consider a mastectomy since they would lose their jobs if they had to spend weeks traveling to receive daily radiation. If they qualify for one-time radiation, that would change, she said.
Reif said this is particularly valuable to a rural state, where people may have to travel farther for radiation. The quick recovery was also beneficial to her: Two days after the surgery, she headed to Texas with her daughters. Four days after that she headed to a nephew’s graduation in Pennsylvania, both things she would not have been able to do if she was undergoing regular radiation.
The treatment does make more work for surgeons, since it makes a 30-45 minute procedure take about 90 minutes and requires a great deal of coordination, said Dr. Therese Cusick, a breast surgeon.
“It takes us more time. We don’t get paid for that extra time, but it’s the right thing to do,” Cusick said.