New option avoids cancer’s permanent reminder

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Tattoos are an expression of individuality for many people – but for cancer survivors they can be an unwelcome reminder of life-changing trauma.

Traditional radiation therapy for breast cancer requires patients to receive small but permanent chest tattoos, to assist clinicians in positioning them correctly for surgery so they are treated in the right location.

When Kyra Fetherston was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after being tested on Christmas Eve 2019, she was worried she would bear visible marks of her treatment for the rest of her life.

However, the secondary school teacher has become the first person in South Australia to receive revolutionary new tattoo-free radiation treatment, at Icon Cancer Centre Windsor Gardens.

“I would have needed to get four tattoos and one would have been visible on my chest. I’m glad not to have a visible reminder like that for special occasions and photos in the future,” said Mrs Fetherston, who came to Adelaide for treatment after a lumpectomy and five months of chemotherapy in her hometown of Mildura in north-west Victoria.

The mother of two decided against travelling to Melbourne for therapy due to her weakened immune system and the higher risk of COVID-19 infection – the pandemic was officially declared on her 40th birthday in March.

She underwent a course of surface-guided radiation therapy (SGRT) using the AlignRT system, which provides high doses of radiation directly to the cancer with pinpoint precision through an unlimited number of reference points.

“I was surprised when I learned I wouldn’t need to get permanent tattoos as part of my treatment. It meant there was one less thing for me to worry about, especially considering the pain and visibility involved with tattoos,” Mrs Fetherston said.

The cutting-edge technology uses safe, non-invasive light emitted from specialised camera units to track and monitor patients during set-up and treatment. 

Icon Cancer Centre Radiation Oncologist Dr Scott Carruthers said the thousands of reference points it provides – rather than the usual three or four tattooed dots – allows treatment with millimetre accuracy.

“The AlignRT system also ensures the patient position remains precise when treatment is being delivered each day. This gives patients reassurance they are receiving highly-targeted treatment directly to the location of their cancer,” he added. 

The technology also delivers a technique that reduces the risk of radiation damage to the heart for patients with left-sided breast cancer.

Deep Inspiration Breath Hold (DIBH) monitors the patient’s breathing position throughout treatment without the need for invasive equipment. 

“My cancer was located directly above my heart in my left breast,” Mrs Wetherston said.

“Knowing that radiation therapy can affect surrounding tissue, I was glad that using DIBH meant I didn’t complicate anything else, especially since I don’t have any existing issues with my heart or lungs.” 

Holding the breath for short intervals allows the heart to move further away from the radiation – and patients can see the process themselves during treatment.  

“There is a screen with a coloured line on it which moves when you breathe and lets you know when to hold your breath. It gave me something to focus on and made the whole experience much easier,” Mrs Wetherston said.

Icon is Australia’s largest dedicated cancer care provider, and CEO Mark Middleton said the group aimed to push the boundaries of innovation. 

“We are committed to reducing the burden of cancer in South Australia and across the country,” he said. 

Icon’s Windsor Gardens clinic opened in 2018 and offers a wide range of services including chemotherapy and treatment for blood disorders. Patients do not need private health insurance to receive radiation therapy treatment, with up to 80-90 percent of costs reimbursed by Medicare.

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