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How a Geiger counter helps breast cancer patients

April 18, 2012 2:39:15 PM PDT
When a breast cancer is so small that doctors can't feel it, a new technique helps them in the operating room.

A breast cancer can be so small early on that it can't be felt, only seen on mammography. Right now, the only way to locate a cancer that cannot be seen is for doctors to stick a thin wire into the breast to show the way. Women have to sit around, sometimes for hours, with that wire sticking out of their breast, before they go to the operating room. Some doctors are trying a different method.

"I think that what some people don't realize is that we're taking out something that we can neither see, nor feel," Dr. Monica Morrow said.

Morrow, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, removes breast cancer she can't see using, of all things, a Geiger counter.

The counter goes over a tiny radioactive seed that doctors inject into the patient's breast next to the cancer. Mary, who would like to use just her first name, had the seed placed at her doctors' recommendation.

"They suggested that I use this radioactive seed implant so on the day of surgery, they can just go in and remove the tumor," she said.

A few months ago, Mary had a biopsy of a suspicious breast area. Doctors left a tiny metal twist there. The biopsy showed cancer, and doctors went back to place the seed right next to the twist marker. The seed is a more accurate technique than the standard wire method.

"It allows you to use the Geiger counter to make your incision over top of the cancer so your incision can be smaller and that has cosmetic advantages and it allows you to take the shortest path to the breast to get to the cancer," morrow said.

Dr. Morrow took out the cancer and sent it for x-ray. Once the seed and the cancer are removed, there's no longer any radiation in the patient's body.

X-rays showed the cancer with the twist marker and seed inside it. Early research shows. using this technique increases the likelihood that a breast cancer patient will get a clean margin of tissue around the cancer, according to Morrow.

That's a big deal because using the standard wire method, 25% of women must have a second operation to remove leftover cancer. Even though the seed makes a lot of noise on the Geiger counter, the radiation is very weak and can stay in the breast safely for days at a time. There is no radiation risk to the patient or her family.

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