Strengthening the arsenal in the fight against breast cancer, doctors at the University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center are using a promising new treatment to destroy the disease in its early stages.

Paul Wong
Surgical oncologist Michael Sabel is one of the few doctors in the country who performs cryosurgery to treat patients in early stages of breast cancer.

Cryosurgery, a minimally-invasive technique which is currently under study, combats the disease by freezing and killing cancer cells.

“Cryosurgery is not new. It has been used successfully to treat tumors in the liver, skin and other areas,” said Michael Sabel, a surgical oncologist at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Originally, it was used with cases of very advanced cancers to palliate (the patient). It has only been recently that we have used this method to treat early cancers.”

Through a tiny incision in the breast, a metal probe finds its way to the center of a tumor where it becomes very cold, forming a ball of ice around the tissue.

“It will kill some normal breast tissue as well, but mainly it will kill the cancer,” Sabel said.

Unlike standard treatments such as mastectomy or lumpectomy where part of or the entire breast is removed, cryosurgery leaves minimal defect in the breast. Because the procedure leaves the membranes of the dead cancer cells intact, the body can reabsorb the tissue to avoid any visible disfigurement in the breast.

Currently, a research trial is in progress with women who are in the early stages of breast cancer. The primary goal of the trial is to see whether cryosurgery can stimulate the body’s immune system to destroy the remaining or subsequent cancer cells. Ideally, after recognizing the tumor proteins, the immune system will learn to fight off the cancer and prevent it from spreading to other parts of the body.

“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,” Sabel said.

After undergoing cryosurgery, trial participants are tested three weeks later to determine if the cancer has been destroyed and if the immune system has been stimulated.

“If it stimulates the immune system, then it might be better than surgery.”

Sabel added that cryosurgery involves less pain than conventional breast cancer treatments.

“It can cause very few side effects. Of the patients we’ve treated, none of them have needed pain medication besides Tylenol.”

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among women. This year alone, approximately 200,000 women were diagnosed, and a predicted 40,000 women will die from it.

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