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Take a Deep Breath to Protect Your Heart

Breathing technique can protect your heart during radiation treatment for breast cancer

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In February, American Heart Month raises awareness of heart disease and its most common causes. Awareness and prevention information are crucial in helping Americans avoid this disease. For women (and men) undergoing radiation therapy, especially for breast cancer, knowing the potential side effects of radiation therapy on your heart is critical in reducing your risk for heart disease.

Radiation therapy is an important tool in the treatment of many types of cancers. But it often comes at a cost: adverse side effects, including an increased risk for heart disease. Techniques to help reduce radiation damage to healthy heart tissue are now part of many breast cancer patients’ treatment plans.

Reports from Harvard University and Cleveland Clinic suggest that radiation therapy poses a risk of heart complications in many breast cancer patients, especially if the cancer develops in the left breast, the same side as the heart. A radiation technique was developed with the goal of moving the heart out of the way of radioactive beams, using what may seem like a simple approach—taking advantage of the patient’s own breathing patterns.

With this technique, known as the deep inspiration breath hold, the patient is instructed to take a deep breath during radiation treatments, moving the chest wall in an effort to help reduce radiation exposure to the heart. Radiation treatments are delivered during these repeated breath holds.

“There is a small space where I can put the beam to avoid radiation to the heart,” says Dr. Marnee Spierer, Medical Director of Radiation Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Goodyear, Arizona. “A deep breath pulls the heart down and out of the radiation beam path. Delivering radiation treatment during these deep breath holds helps protect the heart from exposure.”

The deep breath technique is only used for left-sided breast cancer patients, since radiation to the right breast area does not affect the heart. The procedure is also used in the treatment of other cancers, with the similar goal: to spare healthy organ tissue from radiation exposure.

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