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Published on March 02, 2020

'Breathtaking' Technique Treats Cancer While Saving the Heart

woman smiling in front of green trees

Breast cancer had always been in the back of Paula Chiles' mind because her mother had been diagnosed at age 46.

But that still didn't prepare her to hear that diagnosis for herself, especially at age 35.

"I went numb," she recalls. "It took my breath away."

Thankfully, the Halvorson Cancer Center at EvergreenHealth has the experts – and the technology – to give young women such as Paula the best chance for a healthy outcome and a long, healthy life.

It began with the diagnosis.

"The radiologist explained everything and had already lined up doctors' appointments for the following day," Paula says. "Thank goodness they do that, because I was overwhelmed and wouldn't have known where to start. It was such a comfort to know they'd taken care of the first steps for me."

Minimizing Complications

Given Paula's young age and the location of the cancer in her left breast, her EvergreenHealth cancer team went to work to make sure her treatment not only addressed the cancer but took care not to impact her long-term heart health.

Dr. Marion Johnson, who performed Paula's lumpectomy, says the approach to treatment is the key.

"When you've got a very young woman like Paula and you anticipate years ahead of them and a healthy active life, you can't afford to decrease their cardiac function even a little bit,” she said.

Experts with EvergreenHealth also tailored Paula's chemotherapy to her age and the location of the cancer, going with a nuanced medication regimen to minimize potential complications to Paula's heart.

Minimizing cardiac complications also meant a truly "breathtaking" approach to the radiation treatments that followed Paula Chiles' chemotherapy.

Standard treatment plans, no matter how customized, could have put her heart in the path of the radiation beams, increasing her risk for coronary artery disease in 15 to 20 years.

Instead, Dr. Eric Taylor, the director of radiation oncology at EvergreenHealth, used respiratory gating, a breakthrough in the treatment of breast cancer that times the radiation beams with the patient's own breathing.

"During respiratory gating, Paula would hold her breath, which moved her heart back into her chest cavity and out of the way of the radiation beams," Dr. Taylor explains. "The beams were then cycled on and off to coincide with her breathing pattern – on, when she was holding her breath; off, when she was breathing normally."

Respiratory gating is a treatment technique that EvergreenHealth helped to pioneer in Washington state.

"We always prioritize patient safety and try to cause no harm," Dr. Taylor states. "Respiratory gating allows us to do that."

It also allowed Paula to take an active role in her treatment.

"Working with the radiation technologists to time my breathing made me feel like I had a little more control over my cancer," she says. "It was scientific and fascinating, and very empowering."

Doing What Is Right For The Patient

The preschool teacher and active mother of three gives credit to her EvergreenHealth cancer team.

"I got great care from the best team I could possibly have had," Paula says enthusiastically.

The specialists at EvergreenHealth know how important it is for them to work in unison to ensure the best outcomes for their patients.

Dr. Johnson said, "I'm not just the breast surgeon. I'm working in concert with the oncologist and the radiologist to make sure women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have the best chance for a long and healthy and active life."

For More Information About Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Dr. Eric Taylor talks about radiation therapy at EvergreenHealth

Learn more about cancer care at the Halvorson Cancer Center at EvergreenHealth

Marion Johnson Meet the Expert

Marion Johnson, MD

Dr. Marion Johnson brings more than 20 years of experience to her patients, specializing in mastectomy and lumpectomy.

Read Marion Johnson's full profile

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