For most patients, a diagnosis of breast cancer leads not only to surgery but to chemotherapy and radiation treatments that present their own range of side effects.
Little Company of Mary Hospital, in the Chicago area, is studying a new type of radiation, and it could become a breakthrough in improving patients' quality of life.
Oncologist Adam Dickler uses a tiny radiation balloon to kill any left-over cancer cells from the inside out. In standard therapy, it's used twice a day for five days. He's using the balloon therapy just once, during a patient's surgery, so she won't have to come back to the hospital at all.
"They can actually wake up from their surgery ... and at that time be done, potentially, with all their cancer treatments," Dickler said.
For Marianne Howley, the breast cancer diagnosis came in a phone call. "It was like someone kicked me in the stomach," she said. "It was just so devastating."
Thankfully, it was small enough for surgeons to perform a breast-saving lumpectomy. But Marianne still faced days, perhaps weeks of tiring, debilitating radiation treatments.
That means a lot of travel for elderly patients or those who live far away from their doctors. Some of those patients wind up either skipping their treatments, or they choose a full mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy to avoid radiation entirely, Little Company of Mary oncologist Olga Ivanov said.
Marianne was prepared for the travel, but then she learned of the hospital's experimental option.
Except for some soreness, Marianne said she felt fine after her treatment at Little Company of Mary. And four days later, she was dancing at a wedding.