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New therapy improves breast cancer treatment

Doctors are using a new procedure to treat breast cancer patients. The approach involves a device called a particle accelerator that is used to deliver a huge dose of radiation — right in the operating room.

When Polly Weinheimer was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer two years ago, she jumped at the chance to try an experimental therapy that shortens the length of radiation treatment after initial surgery.

"I didn't want to take all that time," she says.

After doctors removed her cancerous lump, radiation was needed to keep the cancer from returning. Normally it is given over six weeks of daily visits, and often causes burning of the skin and exhaustion.

With the new procedure, Dr. Fred Dirbas and his team at Stanford University use a device called a particle accelerator to deliver one huge dose of radiation — right in the operating room.

"It's delivered while the patient is asleep so she doesn't have to come back to the hospital for special visits or additional treatments," says Dirbas. "So it really is about improving quality of life."

Because the skin is folded back, the radiation delivered through the tube is focused entirely on the breast tissue.

Doctors emphasize that the procedure is still experimental. It will take several years of follow-up to know whether the one shot of radiation in the operating room works as well as the several-week course of external radiation. But so far, the experiments in California and earlier studies in Italy indicate it works well.

After six months Weinheimer says she's healing beautifully.

"You've had cancer, you have this one-shot thing, and now you're done," says Polly.

The new approach could make breast cancer treatment dramatically faster and easier for tens of thousands of women each year.