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Freezing to death: Cryoablation offers way to kill breast cancer cells in patients

Cryoablation is a process that uses extreme cold to destroy tissue.
Procedure freezes breast cancer cells to death
Posted at 6:12 AM, Feb 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-23 09:52:32-05

In contrast to radiation and surgery, a relatively new procedure could help “melt” breast cancer, and take less time.

“The first thing that happens is the needle goes right through the cancer,” Dr. Luz Venta, the medical director at Houston Methodist Breast Care Center, said. “Then the ice ball forms and we see this ice ball growing under ultrasound guidance or MRI guidance.”

This is cryoablation, a process that uses extreme cold to destroy tissue.

“First the cells die when you freeze them, and then when the ice ball melts – you don't see it during the imaging procedure – but the cells pretty much break off and spill their antigens and that is the part that the immune system sees,” Dr. Venta said.

Once the immune system sees the cancer cells, it can fight them off. “Breast cancer is a systemic disease and there's more and more of us that live with that diagnosis,” she said.

Dr. Venta specializes in breast imaging. “Since the 1920s, the treatment for breast cancer has been surgical,” she explained.

But with technological advancements and better understanding, she can now use the cold to help fight certain breast cancers. A study published in 2016 explains exactly how effective it can be in certain types of cancers, and more research is being done.

“It is less invasive than having your teeth cleaned,” Helen Streaker said.

And this procedure has given some hope to women with few options.

“I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993,” Streaker said. In 2016, she was diagnosed with breast cancer again.

“The oncologist said well you can't have surgery because you're a poor surgical risk and you can’t have radiation because you had the total amount allowable in 1993, and we really don't think you should have chemo,” she explained.

So 86-year-old Helen Streaker was told to take a pill. “I remember taking the Arimidex and just laying in bed looking at the ceiling or looking at the windows. I mean too sick to even read a book,” she said.

Then she found out about cryoablation, a simple outpatient procedure that required less than an hour’s time.

“This is a photo of the doctor and myself about 45 minutes after [the procedure],” Streaker said. “We were drinking champagne instead of being in post recovery and all of that.”

That was in 2016. Just last month, Streaker was diagnosed with breast cancer for a third time. She had another round of cryoablation, this time with Dr. Venta and the team at Houston Methodist.

“This is a photo of the incision. Look at that. Look at my fingernail, how small,” she said, pointing to where the procedure happened.

Dr. Venta said it will be an important tool for the future,

“I see cryoablation as definitely one of the tools that will be used in a large proportion of patients. And what we really need to know is exactly what technique of cryoablation in which patient with what combination of tools really is the best for that particular type of cancer and that particular patient,” Dr. Venta explained.

As the procedure continues to be researched, Streaker hopes more and more hospitals will begin to use it and more people will be aware of the option.

“It has been my passion to tell people about this because I don't want women to have unnecessary surgery,” she said.

Streaker emphasizes the importance for people to do self-examinations as well. This can help people be more aware of changes happening in their body and when they may need to see a doctor.