Over her years of faithfully getting annual mammograms, it wasn’t uncommon for Patti Mannarino to get a call-back for some additional testing. But on that day in November 2021 when the radiologist called her and said he had seen something out of the ordinary and would need to do a biopsy, Patti knew in her gut what was coming.
It was breast cancer. “Like everyone, I had my meltdown,” she said. And then she got to work doing research.
The news was mostly good for the Mingo Junction, Ohio, resident. The cancer had not spread, and it was unlikely she would need chemotherapy following surgery.
But the idea of radiation treatments worried Patti. The tumor was near her heart, and with heart disease in her family, she did not want to expose her heart to unnecessary radiation. She had also seen some scary photos online of bad cosmetic outcomes.
In her research, she found out about an innovative new technology called GammaPod®, which looked like the answer to all her concerns. Better yet, it was coming to Allegheny Health Network (AHN), less than an hour’s drive from her home.
GammaPod® is the world’s first radiation device specifically designed for the treatment of breast cancer. It delivers high doses of targeted radiation to the tumor, while sparing the surrounding uninvolved breast tissue and nearby critical organs, such as the heart and lungs. Additionally, it allows radiation treatment to be completed in as little as one to five sessions, while traditional courses of breast radiation take four to six weeks of daily treatments. The lower radiation dose to surrounding structures may be associated with fewer side effects and a better cosmetic outcome.
GammaPod® is available at only two other centers nationwide, and AHN is the first health system in Pennsylvania to offer the groundbreaking treatment to its patients.
“We are thrilled to provide this highly advanced treatment option for early-stage breast cancer,” said radiation oncologist Mark Trombetta, MD, FACR, FACRO, Director of Clinical Oncology Programs, radiation oncologist, and researcher at AHN Cancer Institute. “Our goal is to always treat patients as effectively and safely as possible, returning them to a good quality of life as soon as we can. GammaPod® lets us do that effectively for early-stage breast cancer patients.”
Patti was AHN’s first patient treated with GammaPod®, which is located at AHN Cancer Institute’s hub at Allegheny General Hospital. She had been prepared to travel to Baltimore – the next closest location where a GammaPod® is available – for the treatment, but AHN’s GammaPod® was ready just in time.
Patients lie on a table and the breast is gently held in place by a cup. The stereotactic radiotherapy system, creates thousands of beam angles while the patient lies comfortably still. The individual beams converge to create an intense focal spot, delivering the full dose to the tumor target and sparing normal tissue.
The GammaPod® treatment planning system uses sophisticated calculations to create a dynamic travel path for the delivery of the prescribed dose of radiation, and provides clinicians with tools for quickly creating a new treatment plan each day.
Patients can listen to music during treatment, and Patti said the treatments lasted about “three songs.” A former dance teacher, she choreographed routines to go with the tunes to keep her mind occupied.
“When treating cancer patients with radiation, it’s important to make those treatments as convenient, safe, and comfortable as possible,” Dr. Trombetta said. “Four to six weeks is a long time to come for daily treatment, particularly for patients who live in rural areas, who do not have easy access to transportation or who might experience side effects. With GammaPod®, patients have fewer treatments and less side effects than long course treatment.”
Good candidates for GammaPod® treatment include women with early stage breast cancer, ages 50 or older, and those who are eligible for lumpectomy. Women should discuss with their physicians whether GammaPod® is an appropriate option for their treatment.
“AHN Cancer Institute physicians have always been at the forefront of pioneering innovations in radiation oncology, such as GammaPod®, that improve patient outcomes and quality of life,” said David L. Bartlett, MD, Chair, AHN Cancer Institute. “Most importantly, our physicians combine these state-of-the-art capabilities with compassionate, team-based, coordinated care that guides patients through their cancer journeys and beyond.”
Patti is now looking forward to returning to her work doing home health physical therapy, and to helping babysit her granddaughter. She’s sharing her breast cancer story and has even nudged a few friends who had been skipping their mammograms into returning for the annual test. She returns often to a phrase that she repeated to herself as she researched her options and as she lay prone for her GammaPod® treatments: “I’m embracing this and I’m conquering it.”
About Allegheny Health Network – and the AHN Cancer Institute
Allegheny Health Network, a Highmark Health Company, is a western Pennsylvania-based integrated healthcare system that serves patients from across a five-state region that includes western Pennsylvania and the adjacent regions of Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and New York. The Network’s Cancer Institute employs more than 200 physicians and 500 oncology professionals who provide a complete spectrum of oncology care at 24 affiliated oncology clinics, including access to state-of-the-art technologies and new therapies being explored in hundreds of clinical cancer trials. The Cancer Institute has the only cancer program in the Pittsburgh region accredited as an Integrated Network Cancer Program by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer, and its radiation oncology program is the largest in the country accredited by the American Society for Radiation Oncology. AHN Cancer Institute is a Quality Oncology Practice Initiative certified practice, and is accredited by the Foundation for Accreditation of Cellular Therapy, National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers and the National Accreditation Program for Rectal Cancer. AHN also has a formal affiliation with the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, one of the nation’s 41 comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute, for research, medical education and clinical services.