Extreme breath-holding like that practiced by free divers may have usefulness in the clinic. A new study shows that breast cancer patients can be trained to hold their breath for five minutes, though the difference that would make in their treatment is not yet clear.
Why it matters:
Some methods of breast cancer treatment involve bombarding tumors with radiation. If the radiation hits nearby healthy tissue — like the heart — it can cause damage. So, participants are often told to hold their breath while the radiation is delivered, which can happen in bursts of a few minutes. If patients can hold their breath for long periods of time, the thought is, they could minimize exposure of healthy tissue to radiation.
The nitty gritty:
This study didn’t actually subject patients to radiation but merely looked at whether they could build up their breath-holding tolerance. Patients were connected to a ventilator which supplied extra oxygen (60 percent oxygen compared to the normal 21 percent in air) and siphoned off carbon dioxide. They were coached to gradually hold their breath for longer and longer while their vital signs were monitored. Then, after taking a deep breath, participants were able to hold their breath for an average of just over 5 minutes.
“Patients with cancer can hold their breath for over five minutes, which nobody ever believed was possible,” said Michael Parkes, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham in the School of Sports, Exercise, and Rehabilitation Sciences. “Even we didn’t believe it was possible.”
The study was published Wednesday in the British Journal of Radiology.
But keep in mind:
“I am concerned they are solving a nonproblem,” said Dr. Jay Harris, an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who coauthored the initial 2002 paper showing that breath-holding during radiation minimized damage to patients’ hearts. In that paper, participants held their breath for about 17 seconds.
Now, the standard is closer to 20 or 30 seconds. “The current method … works just fine,” Harris said.
Until trials are run to compare the safety and effectiveness of this multiminute breath-holding technique with the existing procedures, the usefulness of this experimental protocol remains an open question.
Parkes is searching for funding to train staff and buy equipment, and eventually study the technique for its clinical effectiveness. He has filed for a patent for the use of a ventilator in radiation therapy with an eye toward potentially seeking commercial partners.
The bottom line:
People can be trained to hold their breath for a long time when aided with equipment like ventilators. But there isn’t data yet that addresses the question of whether these ultralong breath-holds are any more effective than current techniques.