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IORT as Breast Cancer Treatment: a Primer

IORT as Breast Cancer Treatment: a Primer

IORT stands for Intraoperative Radiation Therapy and the procedure involves targeting abnormal tissue with intense radiation during surgery. In the past, this method has been used to target tumors linked to other diseases, including colorectal, pancreatic, and gynecological cancers. While it has a more established history in treating these diseases, IORT for breast cancer patients is still a relatively new form of treatment.

The treatment is generally used for patients who would already be receiving surgery to remove a cancerous tumor or lump. That’s because the intensity of the radiation used is safer for small, concentrated areas. Patients that are prescribed IORT treatment are usually in the early stages of breast cancer when the cancerous tissue hasn’t yet had the chance to spread.

Difference from Other Radiation

IORT is substantially different than other radiation regimes. For one thing, treatment is much faster. Anyone who has ever had a loved one with cancer knows that whole breast radiation therapy is a long process. Conventional radiation treatments involve a person going to the hospital multiple days each week for several weeks at a time.

IORT is a one-time treatment. This is because of the intensity of radiation aimed at a tumor bed during surgery. Conventional radiation isn’t this intense since surrounding organs could be negatively affected. This direct treatment is thought to have less impact on the surrounding healthy tissue. It can also save time and stress when it comes to frequent hospital visits.

Using IORT during a standard mastectomy means patients may not have to have their nipple and areola removed. It can also be beneficial in protecting the surrounding breast tissue that could be damaged during an invasive surgery. The radiation, combined with the surgery, can have the same effect as a full mastectomy, while keeping other parts of the breast in tact.  

IORT Procedure Still Being Studied

As mentioned, IORT has been used in the past to target cancerous tumors in other parts of the body.

When it comes to breast cancer, research is always being done to study IORT’s effectiveness in preventing recurrence of the disease. Two studies conducted found that while patients who received IORT had the same survival rate as those patients who had full breast radiation therapy, the IORT procedure patients faced a higher chance of having cancer return to the same breast.

IORT patients are sometimes still required to have conventional radiation therapy. One trial found that out of 1,721 women who received the intense radiation during surgery, 15% still had to undergo whole breast radiation therapy. This was because the scope of the cancerous tissue was larger than initially thought.

Due to the relative newness of IORT for breast cancer, it can be more challenging to find a clinic to perform the procedure. Some cancer centers, such as the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, have long been advertising the procedure on their website, while other centers across the country have been more leary to adopt the blend of surgery and radiation into their practice. Tri-City Medical Center was the first hospital in North County to adopt the procedure in summer 2016

If you’re looking into IORT for your breast cancer, it’s recommended to schedule a consultation with your doctor and surgeon to see if the procedure is an option in your treatment center, and whether it’s the right step for you.