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The big freeze: Using cryosurgery to kill breast cancer

Minimally invasive technique is a new weapon in fight against breast cancer

A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues
originally posted October 10, 2002

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Women may soon have a new weapon to use in the fight against breast cancer. It's minimally invasive and does not cause permanent disfigurement as with other procedures like a mastectomy, where the breast is entirely removed, or a lumpectomy, in which the cancer is removed from the breast and radiation therapy is often needed.

This potentially new treatment, called cryosurgery, is currently being studied by the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Researchers are investigating the possibility that in addition to destroying the tumor, cryosurgery may stimulate the immune system to attack any remaining cancer cells, providing a better chance for survival for the approximately 200,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer this year alone.

In 2002, it's predicted that 40,000 women will die from breast cancer, making it the second leading cause of cancer death among women. However, cryosurgery may change those odds.

Cryosurgery involves making a very small incision in the skin. Using an ultrasound, a probe is placed in the center of the tumor to freeze and kill the cancer cells, says Michael Sabel, M.D., a surgical oncologist at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"The tip of the probe gets extremely cold and essentially forms an iceball around the tumor," he explains. "That, in effect, kills all of the cancer cells, which allows the body to reabsorb the tissue so there's not a large defect in the breast."

In contrast to other techniques used to treat breast cancer, cryosurgery leaves the shell of the cancer cells intact. This allows the immune system to clean up the area, exposing the tumor proteins to the white blood cells.

And by exposing the immune system to the tumor, it may help prevent cancer from returning or spreading to other parts of the body - a common occurrence in breast cancer patients who are diagnosed after the cancer has already spread to the lymph nodes or beyond.

"I'm hoping that by freezing the tumor, the immune system will learn to recognize cancer and go out and destroy cancer in other parts of the body, the same way it looks for bacteria or viruses with certain proteins," says Sabel.

Cryosurgery is also used to destroy abnormal cervical cells and correct problems with inflammation or chronic discharge. In addition, cryosurgery has been used to treat tumors in the liver and benign lesions in the breast.

However, the effectiveness of cryosurgery as a treatment for breast cancer is still being investigated by the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center. Currently, a trial is underway at the Center with women who are in the early stages of breast cancer.

In the trial, participants undergo cryosurgery followed by the procedure they would have otherwise had - either a lumpectomy or mastectomy - three weeks later. Using this process, researchers are able to find out if the cancer has been destroyed and if the immune system has been stimulated.

"I believe cryosurgery will be very useful in the future for treatment in the early stages of breast cancer," Sabel says.

To learn more about cancer and about research studies conducted at the U-M Health System, contact the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center's Cancer AnswerLine™ at 1-800-865-1125.

Facts cryosurgery and breast cancer:

  • This year, 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and it's estimated that another 40,000 women will die from it - making breast cancer the second leading cause of cancer death among women.
  • A new technique, called cryosurgery, is currently being studied at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.
  • Cryosurgery involves freezing the breast tumor to kill all of the cancer cells. It's hoped that this technique will also keep cancer cells from returning in the breast and other areas of the body.
  • Cryosurgery is minimally invasive, requiring only a small incision in the skin. Other treatments for breast cancer include a mastectomy (removal of the breast) and lumpectomy (removal of the tumor, typically followed by radiation treatment)

For more information, visit the following Web sites (these will open in a second browser window):

U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center's Breast Cancer Information page

U-M Health Topic A-Z: Cryotherapy

NCI: What You Need To Know About Breast Cancer

Written by Krista Hopson

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Speak with a Cancer nurse: 1-800-865-1125
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