Taking a breath for breast cancer patients could decrease risk for heart attack


FARMINGTON, Conn. (WTNH) — When Andree Gervais was diagnosed with breast cancer, she says it was “just a little spot about 4 mm wide.”

Still her treatment included a lumpectomy, chemo and radiation, but getting that dose of radiation required an added step – albeit a simple one.

“Two or three breaths and your done.”

She’s talking about deep breath inspiration.

“The idea of the deep breath inspiration is to change the shape and size of the chest wall so that the breast is separated from the heart to a greater distance than it would be if you were breathing normally,” explains Dr. Robert Dowsett.

The radiation oncologist at UConn Health says the novel technology aims at reducing the long term effect of radiation exposure on a breast cancer patient’s heart.

He says, “There’s evidence that even low dose radiation to the heart, years down the road, maybe a decade later can lead to a higher risk of heart attacks.”

As Andree demonstrated, it begins with putting on special goggles to help guide her to inhale correctly.

She says, “You would inhale, you would watch the bar rise. You had to get the bar inside the box so when you would exhale the bar would drop. Whe you would inhale, the bar would rise and you would hold your breath. You would try to keep the bar inside this box.”

So when the radiation is delivered, there’s more space between the edge of the heart and breast wall. A scan of Andree breathing in and out normally has less space — compared to the one taken during deep breath inspiration.

“That small half inch to a three quarter of an inch distance that we can create between the chest wall and the heart gives us a lot of room to get the radiation beam in,” says Dr. Dowsett.

That small distance says Dr. Dowsett, can make a big difference.

He points out, “If you’re heart attack risk was 5 percent in your lifetime but we doubled it at 10%, you still have a 90 percent of doing but there are five people out of 100 that will have heart attacks that didn’t have to have them.”

Patients with lung and abdominal cancers are now also benefitting.

Dr. Dowsett admits, “It’s not going to make a difference tomorrow or even two years from now but we’re thinking long-term for all of the patients.”

“It keeps my heart muscle safe,” says Andree.

Dr. Dowsett says, “It might be a decade down the road but it’s worth it.”

And if for some reason the patient is not able to hold that breath and lets go, the system does shut down immediately.

For more information, click here.

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