St. Luke's Hospital launches breast cancer radiation therapy program

Intraoperative therapy used for three early-stage patients in clinical trial

St. Luke’s Hospital is offering radiation therapy for the first time in its history to patients with breast cancer.

Intraoperative radiation therapy was used Monday for three early-stage breast cancer patients in an international clinical trial, said Dr. Robert Brimmer, Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa general surgeon and a member of the team using the new portable system.

Brimmer said the treatment provides a concentrated dose of electron beam radiation to a precise location of breast tissue, following a lumpectomy to remove the tumor.

“This targets the specific area where the cancer has been,” Brimmer said, noting that 90 percent of cancers recur within 2 centimeters of the original tumor.

Under the trial, patients receive just three weeks of radiation following the surgery, rather than six.

Brimmer said that results in time and cost savings.

St. Luke's estimates surgery costs with the new system to be between $15,622 and $37,733, compared with surgery followed by traditional radiation at $51,035.

An estimated 50 patients could use intraoperative radiation therapy in the first year, Brimmer said.

Dr. Janet Merfeld, of Radiation Oncology of Cedar Rapids, contracts with St. Luke’s to deliver the radiation treatment.


St. Luke’s required a state certificate of need to begin using the $1.2 million system because the hospital did not have a certified radiation therapy program.

Mercy Medical Center opposed St. Luke’s foray into radiation treatment, but has its own program available for the follow-up treatment with external beam radiation.

“We’re trying to use community resources without duplication,” Brimmer said.

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City also offers intraoperative radiation therapy, using low-energy X-rays rather than electrons.

Dr. Sonia Sugg, associate professor in the Division of Surgical Oncology and Endocrine Surgery, noted that 21 operations have been performed since the therapy was reintroduced at UI Hospitals in April.

Sugg wrote in an email that patients are carefully selected for the treatment and those suitable are older, with smaller tumors and no lymph node involvement.



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