Millions of breast cancer survivors are alive and thriving today because of innovations in the detection and treatment of the disease — technologies that are continuously improved for safety and effectiveness.
A recent innovation – deep inspiration breath hold – introduced earlier this year at Tanner’s Roy Richards, Sr. Cancer Center, protects women from a potential side effect of their life-saving radiation treatments: heart damage.
Radiation therapy is a critical component in fighting cancer and has a solid risk/benefit profile in treating breast cancer, said Tanner’s chief radiation oncologist Anil Dhople, MD.
Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is often combined with surgery and chemotherapy to provide the best possible outcomes for women diagnosed with the disease, which still ranks second among cancer killers of women. But radiation treatments can affect healthy tissue and organs, too. This is especially true for women undergoing cancer treatment for the left breast — on the same side of the body as the heart.
“Radiation therapy for cancer of the left breast brings the radiotherapy in close proximity to the heart,” said Dr. Dhople, who also serves as quality advisor for radiation oncology at Tanner.
“Deep inspiration breath hold harnesses the natural movement of the lungs and heart during deep breaths to move the heart farther away from the targeted treatment area, reducing exposure.”
The procedure has become especially valuable as women are living longer after breast cancer treatments. Longer survivorship means patients’ heart health becomes much more important.
But the process isn’t as simple as asking a patient to hold their breath while they receive a dose of radiation.
“The technique combines a network of scans and sensors, which create a map of the patient’s body, with a breathing technique that involves the patient holding her breath for about 20 seconds while the radiation is delivered,” said Dr. Dhople.
“By carefully coaching our patients on their breathing during the treatment process with the deep inspiration breath hold technique, we significantly reduce their risk of heart complications later in life.”
For Christa Smith of Bremen, who was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in January 2021 during a routine screening mammogram, the coaching around her breathing during her radiation treatments was consistent with the overall focus on her comfort and experience throughout her radiation — and her Tanner diagnosis and treatment journey overall.
Her treatment plan called for a lumpectomy, followed by 21 radiation treatments and cancer-blocking hormone therapy for five years.
Her care team includes breast surgeon Raul Zunzunegui, MD; oncologist Brad Larson, MD; and Dr. Dhople, as well as family member and advocate, Bremen physician Allison Key, MD.
“It was always all about me and how I was feeling,” said Smith.
“Dr. Dhople explained the deep breathing process to me and why it was so important,” said Smith. “He encouraged me to practice at home so I could find that sweet spot where I was breathing deeply enough. When it was time, I was not scared at all and I did it! Dr. Dhople and his team were always there, holding my hand and encouraging me. My treatments were only about 15 minutes, but I never felt rushed.”
The assistant superintendent of Bremen City Schools, Smith said she “remained optimistic and focused on my treatments,” always intent on following doctors’ orders throughout her process.
She understood she had the benefit of some new technology with deep inspiration breath hold, but the true significance hit home when the sister of a friend began experiencing heart issues years after her cancer treatment.
Smith, married and a mother of two daughters, began running two years ago and working out about six years ago, but missed very few days due to her breast cancer treatment. To mark a turning point in her cancer journey, she and one of her daughters participated in the It’s a Journey Georgia 2-Day Walk for Breast Cancer in early October, walking 10 miles during this year’s one-day event abbreviated due to COVID-19.
“Everyone knows someone — a mother, friend, sister — who has gone through breast cancer. I am just so grateful that we have doctors, facilities and expertise like this to care for us, just a few minutes from home. I didn’t have to go to Atlanta, and I was able to keep up with my job and life,” said Smith.
Dr. Dhople introduced the deep inspiration breath hold technique at Tanner Cancer Care shortly after his arrival in Fall 2020.
“One of the big reasons I decided I wanted to come to Tanner is the commitment Tanner has to patient care as it relates to our cancer patients,” said Dr. Dhople. “From the 3-Day program, where we commit to getting a patient treatment options within three days of their referral, to treatments like this where it took a lot of effort to implement this technology, Tanner was committed to it and empowered us to provide this service to our patients.”
Learn more about about this new innovation in Dr. Dhople's deep inspiration breath hold video.
For more information on Tanner’s 3-Day Cancer Care Promise, visit TannerCancerCare.org.