This article is part of Jmore’s “Innovation in Health Care” special section.

More than 60 percent of women are diagnosed with an early-stage breast cancer at some point during their lives. Now, doctors at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center are offering a game-changing radiation treatment to those patients who are eligible, using a machine called the GammaPod.

Invented by Dr. Cedric Yu, a radiation physicist, and Dr. William Regine, chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the GammaPod is the first-ever radiation therapy system specifically designed to treat early-stage breast cancer. 

“I believe that for women with very small early-stage breast cancer, we are probably over-treating many of them,” says Dr. Yu. “We should be able to use a non-invasive method to eradicate those patients’ tumors. That would be a drastic improvement on their quality of life without any detrimental effect to their treatment.”

“Instead of four to six weeks of radiation five days a week, I was able to get just five treatments every other day.”

— Janet Fishbein

This treatment, which was recently cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has only been available to patients since last November when Dr. Elizabeth M. Nichols, an associate professor and clinical director of the University of Maryland Department of Radiation Oncology, treated the first patient. The Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center was the first center in the U.S. to offer this new technology. 

“For the last 20 years, we have treated all breast cancer the same,” says Dr. Nichols, who was involved in the GammaPod clinical trial that led to the FDA clearance and currently leads a national GammaPod Research Consortium. “Partial-breast radiation has been studied for over a decade and this past year, two major studies showed that for women with certain types of breast cancer, partial-breast radiation is equivalent to whole-breast radiation. The GammaPod is a treatment machine focused on partial-breast treatment providing targeted radiation in a precise manner with negligible radiation doses going elsewhere.” 

Using an immobilization device and low-grade suction to hold the breast in place, the GammaPod allows doctors to give higher doses of radiation to the specific area of the breast that needs treatment without affecting other organs and tissues. Additionally, the GammaPod shortens the length of radiation treatment from 30 sessions to no more than five, reducing excess doses of radiation therapy to the healthy breast tissue, heart and lungs, thereby improving the short- and long-term side effects.

“So far, it’s been demonstrated that there is no other method in the world that can deliver a similar distribution of radiation,” says Dr. Yu, who also serves as chief executive officer of Xcision Medical Systems LLC, which manufactures the GammaPod. 

Currently, the standard of care for treating patients with early-stage breast cancer is to perform a lumpectomy to remove the tumor followed by radiation to reduce the risk of local recurrence. With the GammaPod, a group of women with certain types of breast cancer may be eligible to forgo surgery altogether, a treatment method that is currently being studied as part of a clinical trial. 

“We hope to be able to identify a group of women where we can cure their cancer with radiation alone, and this could be a game-changer,” says Dr. Nichols., “A majority of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer are eligible for partial-breast radiation. If we can show that radiation treatment with the GammaPod will eradicate the tumor, we could potentially change the face of breast cancer treatment.  The GammaPod won’t replace treatment for all forms of breast cancer, but because breast cancer is so common, we have the potential to positively impact a lot of women.” 

Columbia resident Janet Fishbein says her treatment plan was changed for the better thanks to the GammaPod.  Fishbein, 60, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February after discovering a lump during a routine doctor’s visit. 

“I’ve always been told to look for a pea or a bean that is hard, but it was nothing like that,” says Fishbein. “This was more like a river stone, flat and oval. It was nothing like I thought I should look out for.” 

After Fishbein had surgery, her doctor told her she was eligible to use the GammaPod for radiation and she opted to go that route for her treatment plan.

“This was non-invasive and a shorter period of time,” says Fishbein. “Instead of four to six weeks of radiation five days a week, I was able to get just five treatments every other day.” 

While Fishbein says she did experience fatigue on her radiation days, she didn’t experience other side effects like burning of the skin or radiation to other areas of her body, which can happen with traditional radiation therapy. 

“For me, going through this treatment wasn’t stressful,” Fishbein says. “I’m really lucky and grateful that I danced through this so gracefully.” 

Fishbein says she is now telling everyone she knows about the GammaPod and making sure they remember to do their annual doctor visits. 

“I used to get my mammograms and go to my OB/GYN close together, but this past year I had to do them six months apart and during that six-month period something grew,” says Fishbein. “What the mammogram didn’t catch, my doctor did. I’m lucky it was caught early and didn’t spread.”