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New Technique Helping Women Avoid Heart Problems During Breast Cancer Treatment

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – For women battling breast cancer, a lumpectomy is often the treatment of choice to preserve the breast.

But that requires radiation to prevent cancer recurrence and can sometimes harm the heart.

CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reports that a new technique may help protect women's hearts.

Joyce McCain's breast cancer was picked up in a routine mammogram earlier this year. The 65-year-old considered her active lifestyle and decided a lumpectomy with radiation was the right treatment for her. Then doctors explained there could be side effects for the heart.

"That gave me something else to start worrying about," McCain said.

Joyce's cancer was in her left breast, so radiation to prevent a recurrence in her breast meant her heart was also in the path of the radiation beam and that can lead to heart disease.

(Credit: CBS2)

"More commonly we worry about long-term side effects of the heart and that can include, for example, increased risk of coronary heart disease and subsequent heart attacks," Dr. Chirag Shah of the Cleveland Clinic explained.

Dr. Shah told Joyce about a technique they're using that protects the heart from radiation while still delivering treatment effectively.

Patients wear a snorkel-like device during radiation. They take a deep breath and hold it; increasing the distance between the heart and the area of the breast getting the radiation.

(Credit: CBS2)

"As the breast and the chest lift up, the heart stays where it is. So we're able to treat the breast and chest while limiting the dose to the heart," the doctor adds.

Something Joyce is grateful for. She needed 15 rounds of radiation.

"I feel good. I really do. I keep trying to do my exercises. I'm trying to eat the way they want me to eat and I try not to dwell on it. I'm trying to keep it positive," McCain said.

Other hospitals are using a radiation unit where the woman lies face down on a table, allowing the breast to hang away from the chest so the radiation beam misses the heart.

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