Oncology clinic newest weapon in Keesler's cancer fighting arsenal

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - by Steve Pivnick
81st Medical Group Public Affairs

BILOXI, MS (KAFB) - Keesler's Medical Center offers breast cancer patients a trio of treatments to try to defeat the disease. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are all available. The facility's new radiation oncology clinic, while treating a relatively few breast cancer patients to date, provides care with its state-of-the-art linear accelerator.

According to Maj. (Dr.) Clayton Chen, chief of radiation oncology for the 81st Diagnostics and Therapeutics Squadron, "We have recently treated two breast cancer patients and may have two more starting treatment in the next month or so."

He noted that the disease affects a relatively small number of active duty military women. The major explained surgery is almost always involved in attacking the disease, usually through a mastectomy or lumpectomy.

"Lymph nodes are evaluated in some manner," he explained. "The surgeon injects a blue dye containing a radioactive element which travels to an affected lymph node - normally the first node affected by the cancer -- and locates it using a Geiger counter. Then the lymph node (or nodes) is removed."

Major Chen said if a woman -- or man, since only about one percent of breast cancer cases involve men -- undergoes a mastectomy, she may or may not receive chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment.

He added that the lumpectomy, probably the most popular option in the U.S., involves removal of the cancer while leaving the breast intact. Surgery would be followed by radiation. Depending what the surgeon finds during surgery, chemotherapy may also be recommended.

If breast cancer is detected during a primary care provider referred mammogram and surgery is performed to remove the cancer, the surgeon would then refer the patient to radiation oncology if he or she determines that to be the next step in the treatment.

Major Chen said the normal treatment course lasts five to six weeks during which patients receive daily externalbeam therapy.

"Patients don't really feel anything while on the table," he commented. "However, over the course of the treatment, the skin can become irritated, similar to a bad sunburn."

He added, "One of the newer experimental treatments is high-dose rate brachytherapy. We place a small radioactive source within the lumpectomy cavity. Instead of irradiating the entire breast, we limit treatment to just the surgical cavity. The benefit of this experimental course is that it lasts just one to two weeks versus five to six."

The major stressed this is an experimental treatment which the department hopes to begin here in the next few months -- they have the necessary equipment but are awaiting licensing. Once available, it will only be recommended for highly selected patients at very low risk for tumor recurrence, as the long term efficacy remains unknown.

The success rate in treating all types of cancer depends on the stage it is detected -- Stage One is the earliest and Stage Four the most advanced. Major Chen emphasized that patients requiring cancer treatment -- surgery, chemotherapy and radiation -- can receive all at the Keesler hospital.

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