By holding their breath, patients receiving radiation protect their hearts

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    Patients who hold their breath during radiation treatment for breast cancer may be protecting their hearts.

    As a woman receives radiation for cancer in the left breast, her heart tissue below might also be getting a potentially harmful dose. Researchers from Thomas Jefferson University have found that inhaled air can help shield the heart.

    According to a study published this month in the journal Practical Radiation Oncology, the expanded lung volume from a breath reduced the radiation dose delivered to the heart by 62 percent.

    “When her lung volume increases, this actually helps move her breast and her chest wall tissue away from the heart,” explained Harriet Eldredge-Hindy, chief resident in radiation oncology at Jefferson and first author of the paper.

    The researchers compared the expected radiation dose in 86 patients with the standard technique and one in which they asked patients to use a device to help them hold their breath for 20 seconds during each pulse of radiation treatment. With the breath holds, nearly 90 percent experienced at least a 20 percent reduction in radiation to the heart, and about a third of women also saw a similar drop in dose to their left lung.

    Those potential benefits came with the same long-term outcomes for breast cancer when they followed up with patients eight years later, said senior author Rani Anne.

    “Women shouldn’t have to worry about the long-term effects of radiation on the heart using this technique,” she said. “We should feel comfortable using the device because the long-term results are good.”

    The main drawback is that about a fifth of patients aren’t able to use the device, which requires a scubalike mouthpiece and nose clips to coordinate the breath holds.

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