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Breast health 2019

The tiny tags that make life easier for breast cancer patients

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Dr Alice Leaver

Clinical Director and Consultant Breast Radiologist, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead

Q&A: Breast cancer patients can benefit from pioneering pre-op technology, says Dr Alice Leaver, Clinical Director and Consultant Breast Radiologist, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead.

What is a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag?

Thanks to the NHS breast screening programme, increased breast health awareness and more innovative technology, we can now detect early stage breast cancers that are tiny — often too small to feel. That’s good news for the patient, because small tumours are easier to treat.

However, precisely because these tumours are so small, the surgeon can have difficulty locating them when it comes to removing them. So, the RFID tag is pioneering technology implanted into the breast of a patient to mark these tiny tumours and guide the surgeon to their location, using a hand held detector that emits radiowaves. Tags are small — the size of a grain of rice — radiation free and passive.

What was used to guide surgeons before this technology became available?

We’ve been inserting very thin guide wires into the patient’s breast on the morning of surgery, under local anaesthetic. On the whole, wires do a good job of guiding the surgeon to the tumour. The downside is that sometimes these wires can move, which causes problems for the surgeon — plus, patients don’t like the idea of a wire being inserted into them, for obvious reasons. They have to put up with it sticking out of their breast until the operation, at which time it’s removed.

How have patients reacted to the RFID tag?

We’ve had great feedback. We want to do our utmost to give our patients the best experience possible because we know that this is such a traumatic time for them.

An RFID tag is a way to help them feel more relaxed and make the process easier.

It can be implanted at the patient’s convenience, at any time in the 30 days before surgery.

When a wire is inserted on the morning of the operation, the patient can’t eat or drink. With this new technology, however, patients can pop in, have the tag implanted — and then they don’t have to come in so early on the day of their surgery.

Does it also make life easier for clinicians?

Tags are very helpful because they offer more accuracy for the surgeon. There’s also less chance of an operation having to be cancelled because there was a problem with a guide wire. And because tags can be implanted in the days before surgery, clinicians in radiology and surgery departments are able to better organise their workflows.

Tags are slightly more expensive than guide wires, but we found they work very well and improve the patient experience. Now our Trust — the first NHS Trust to use them — is looking at whether tags can be funded long-term.

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