PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Doctors say radioactive seeds are making surgery more efficient for women with a small breast tumor.

Marlene Tucker had breast cancer, picked up on a screening test.

“An irregularity in the mammogram,” she says. “It should have bothered me worse than it did, but it didn’t because they kept saying it was very, very small.”

For women whose tumors are too small to feel, surgeons need some extra help in the operating room to find it.

This is done with the help of a radiologist who, just before the surgery, inserts a wire to pinpoint the abnormal tissue based on the mammogram.

“The radiologist puts a wire through the skin of the breast, and sort of skewers that tumor, so to speak, with that wire,” explains Dr. Kathleen Erb, a breast surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital.

A newer alternative is to plant a seed.

This seed is a tiny radioactive pellet that helps a surgeon find and remove a small breast cancer.

A radiologist puts it in with a needle up to a few days before surgery.

“I can’t say it hurt, no, uh uh. They had numbed the breast. So afterward, when the numbness wore off, no it did not hurt,” says Marlene.

Then in the operating room…

“We use a probe, like a geiger counter, and by passing it over the surface of the breast, we can tell exactly where that seed is, because the geiger counter makes a noise as we brush over that area,” says Dr. Erb.

The surgeon can then more efficiently cut and remove the tumor along with the seed.

It is covered by insurance. The Breast Center at Allegheny General Hospital has done a couple dozen cases this way over the past six months.

It probably won’t become widespread practice, because the bits of radioactive iodine are tracked closely by the government. Every facility that handles it needs a special license.

As for the radioactivity, it only spreads about a centimeter from the pellet, and the radiation dose is equal to what you would get walking around your average American city for a day.

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“I was wondering if I’d glow, but I didn’t,” Marlene chuckles. “It healed beautifully. It really healed up nice.”

Dr. Maria Simbra