New breakthrough treats breast cancer in 5 days instead of 6 weeks

Breast cancer survivors know the difficulty of a long march through up to 6 weeks of radiation therapy following breast surgery. Now, thanks to innovative new treatments at Erlanger, the journey to health is as short as 5 days, with less discomfort and fewer side effects.

How is that possible? Dr. Norleena Gullett, Radiation Oncologist at Erlanger Health System, is the first in the area to use an advanced form of therapy called SAVI® brachytherapy. It is an advance in care that allows a woman to start breast radiation treatment on Monday and finish the following Friday afternoon.

Treatment for breast cancer has come a long way. As recently as the 1980s, the standard for breast cancer treatment was a mastectomy — surgical removal of the entire breast, muscle, and lymph nodes. Doctors now use breast conservation therapy (BCT), which allows a woman to keep her breast and still be cured of cancer. A surgeon removes just the “lump,” and women receive radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells in the breast.

SAVI, the five-day radiation therapy

Radiation is a critical component of breast conservation therapy. Typically, treatments are given daily for four to six weeks. Common side effects are fatigue, tanning, redness, even blistering of the skin.

Dr. Gullett uses the SAVI applicator to concentrate radiation only to the surgical cavity, killing any residual tumor cells while avoiding healthy breast tissue. Not only is Dr. Gullett able to spare breast tissue from radiation, but the patient’s chest, lung, and heart also avoid the toxic doses typically endured with conventional treatment.


With SAVI, a small bundle of catheters is inserted into the cavity where the surgeon removed the tumor. Once inside, the catheters expand to conform to the individual’s anatomy — making SAVI possible for women with small or augmented breasts. Different levels of radiation can be delivered through each catheter — ensuring maximum effectiveness while avoiding damage to other organs. Treatments are given twice a day for five days; the catheters are then removed on the fifth day.

Many women appreciate the convenience of SAVI with minimal down time and few side effects. Most patients resume their daily activities the next Monday after treatment. Dr. Gullett’s goal is to get her patients back to “normal life” as soon as possible.

Another Erlanger first — the prone breast board

If you’re an Erlanger patient but not a candidate for SAVI and still want minimal side effects, no worries. Dr. Gullett is the first Radiation Oncologist in our community to adopt the prone breast board. How does it work? Just as it sounds. Instead of lying on your back, you are “prone” — on your stomach. The board has a cutout that allows the breast to hang from the chest wall, away from the lung and heart. Dr. Gullett and her team plan your treatment to avoid radiation to the heart, making it a safer option than standard radiation.

Dr. Norleena Gullett is a Radiation Oncologist at Erlanger Health System. For more information about breast services at Erlanger, please call 423-778-LINK.