Woman holds breath to reduce radiation damage to heart

Sanford Health trains breast cancer patients to use "deep inspiration breath hold"

Kristin Wieman and her family

When Kristin Wieman first heard about a new breathing technique used during radiation therapy that could reduce her risk of future health problems, she was intrigued.

Wieman was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2017. When she began radiation treatment the following March, Steve McGraw, M.D., at the Sanford Cancer Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, introduced her to the “deep inspiration breath hold” — a technique used to minimize the impact of radiation treatment on the heart.

The technique was developed after a study published in 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that radiation treatment to the left breast increased the chances of the patient eventually developing heart disease or dying from some type of cardiac problem due to the heart’s location being right in the treatment field.

The risk can last 20 years or more, so the younger a patient is, the more time there is to develop problems down the line.

As a wife and mother to two teenage boys, Mason and Preston, 49-year-old Wieman didn’t want to take any risks. Though apprehensive at first, she quickly took to the idea and went home to practice holding her breath consistently.

“I laid on the floor and had my sons time me,” she said.

The technique basically entails holding your breath for 20 seconds. When you take a deep breath, the breast actually moves out away from the heart, so the target on the breast is treated while decreasing the dose of radiation on the heart and left lung.

“When he (Dr. McGraw) explained the reasoning of doing it I thought, ‘Oh, that makes a lot of sense,'” Wieman said. “That was reassuring to know that I was being proactive to minimize the impact on my heart.”

For Wieman, the practice paid off and holding her breath turned out to be no big deal. 

“It was very quick, it was very painless and the holding of the breath was no problem at all,” she said. “All the nurses and doctors there, I can’t say enough about them and the input they gave. It all went really smoothly and really well.”

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Posted In Cancer, Health Information

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