A new radiotherapy technique that protects women with breast cancer from life-threatening side-effects could soon be available to more patients.
The technique, called deep inspiration breath hold, essentially means patients take a deep breath and hold it just before each radiotherapy dose is delivered.
This protects the heart from damage caused by the radiation.
More than 80 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will have radiotherapy to kill off cancer cells as part of their treatment.
However, while it is a highly effective treatment, radiotherapy — which uses beams of radiation to damage the DNA of cancer cells, causing them to die — can raise a woman’s risk of heart attack.
That’s because the heart lies just behind the left breast, and as radiotherapy is targeted at the breast, it can also permanently damage the heart and nearby blood vessels.
This in turn can cause the tissue to become thickened and inflamed and, over time, may block blood supply to the heart, increasing the risk of heart disease and heart attack.
The idea with the deep inspiration breath hold (DIBH) technique is that as the patient takes a deep breath in, the lungs expand and push the heart backwards and downwards away from the breast area and out of danger.
A number of different machines can be used to monitor a patient’s breathing to make sure the radiation is given only when the patient breathes in, the lungs are fully inflated and the heart is out of harm’s way.
But experts also say patients can, with the right guidance, simply take a deep breath in just before a dose is applied without the need for expensive machines.