WellStar Health System Introduces Intraoperative Radiation Therapy for Early-Stage Breast Cancer

By Tara Gary

It’s reassuring to hear genuine excitement from physicians when a procedure becomes available to offer their patients. Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) is a one-time radiation treatment used during a lumpectomy (removal of a breast tumor) that concentrates on the immediate area of tissue surrounding the tumor—sparing healthy tissue and organs. To continue advancing the fight against breast cancer, WellStar Health System has become one of the only health systems in Georgia to offer IORT, and the first in Georgia to have a mobile unit to treat breast cancer in a minimal amount of time. I spoke with Dr. Mark McLaughlin, who specializes in radiation oncology, and Dr. Laura Pearson, who specializes in breast surgery, at WellStar North Fulton Hospital in Roswell. They shared their excitement for this procedure, which has just recently been made available at WellStar. There are several factors attributed to their enthusiasm for IORT, which Dr. McLaughlin referred to as “a game changer for women.” Convenience is one of those factors. The IORT machine itself is mobile and therefore available not only at WellStar North Fulton Hospital but at WellStar Kennestone as well. Dr. McLaughlin is pleased this method is available at two locations, making it more convenient for the patient to access. Another factor is, compared to conventional radiation therapy, IORT can reduce a breast cancer patient’s radiation treatment plan from the typical 25 plus daily visits to zero.

Determining whether a patient is a good candidate for the procedure is the first step. Recipients of the procedure are typically older, over 40, in the early stage of breast cancer with a small tumor within the breast tissue, not touching the skin. The cancer must also be contained within the breast and not have spread to the lymph nodes.

Once a patient agrees to pursue this method and it’s determined to be the right method for the patient, a team of physicians—including Dr. McLaughlin and Dr. Pearson—collectively determine the best approach, based on the patient’s needs, to direct the best outcome for that patient. Getting the results right the first time from an alliance of experts is both reassuring and comforting.

During the outpatient surgery the tumor is removed by the surgeon Dr. Pearson, and the radiation oncologist Dr. McLaughlin then places a temporary saline-filled balloon in the area where the tumor was removed. Together with a medical physicist, Dr. McLaughlin administers the radiation to the balloon which has a small x-ray source to deliver the radiation. Dr. Pearson then removes the balloon and completes the surgery. What sets this team apart from others is combining plastic surgery during the procedure to avoid future surgeries. Dr. Pearson explained the eagerness to remove the tumor with no regard to the appearance of the outcome is of utmost importance to most patients. She stressed the significance to reconstruct the affected tissue and the use of plastic surgery to do so at the time of the procedure to provide a better cosmetic outcome and quality of life for the patient in the future.

Providing comfort and assurance to the patient is of utmost importance to the doctors at WellStar. I had the pleasure of speaking with the first recipient to receive IORT at WellStar, Nan. Nan’s doctor had been pressuring her to get a mammogram for nearly eight years. She revealed she had some extra time on her hands one day in early October of this year, and she decided to finally get that mammogram. The x-ray image revealed what she described as small white soldiers lined up in a row in the black mass which was her breast. After a biopsy, Nan received the dismal results of the presence of the “C” word, Stage 0 cancer. She surprisingly wasn’t afraid throughout the entire process proceeding her diagnosis. She explained the nurturing nature of Dr. Pearson and her staff, stressing the importance of sharing her experience with others. She could hardly contain her enthusiasm for the care she received by the team of WellStar doctors, who she referred to as a group of family and friends. I had prepared a list of questions to ask Nan during our interview that deemed unnecessary. Her excitement with her jubilant and bubbly personality quickly took over our conversation. She embarrassingly apologized for this, and I laughingly responded my gratefulness for her sharing her story with such exuberance considering I had been expecting to hear a darker version.

I was amazed upon hearing how detailed the physicians at WellStar conducted the treatment. Nan told me a team of doctors met with her individually to explain their part in the process of her treatment at North Fulton Hospital’s multidisciplinary Breast Cancer STAT Clinic. When Dr. Pearson asked Nan if she wanted to keep her breast, Nan jokingly replied, “I’d like to keep my girls.” She said she never felt uncomfortable or rushed, which is something I have felt with physicians (not from WellStar) in the past. After the consultation, Nan was ready for her treatment. She was prepped, and upon being wheeled into the operating room, she remembered a line of individuals giving her a “thumbs up.” She said she felt like a “rockstar.” As she awoke from her surgery, Nan was greeted with the smiling face of Dr. Pearson who informed her the surgery was a success, and the team had achieved everything they had set out to do. A short time later, Dr. Pearson invited Nan to her office for her follow-up consultation. Again, Dr. Pearson was smiling and informed Nan the cancer was successfully removed. The entire process—diagnosis to the treatment—occurred within just 18 days. When I spoke to Nan it was nearly a month since her procedure. She struggled emphasizing how amazing her experience had been. She repeatedly asked for me to share her story with as many people as possible, emphasizing her satisfaction and the true heartfelt thanks she feels for the exemplary care she received from the professionals at WellStar. She jokingly remarked about trying to find another reason to go back to the facility considering the “natural high” she has been experiencing since being treated and cared for so well.

On right, Mark McLaughlin, M.D., radiation oncologist, WellStar Health System, and on left, Suran Chae, DABR, oncology physicist, WellStar Health System.

If you are interested in learning more about WellStar Health System’s new mobile IORT machine and how it is greatly impacting breast cancer patients, visit WellStar.org