BACKGROUND: External irradiation is an established palliative treatment for patients with inoperable lung cancer. However, persistent or recurrent symptoms due to local disase are common following external irradiation. The impact of high dose rate (HDR) brachytherapy in the palliative management of patients with local sequelae of residual or recurrent endobronchial lung carcinoma following external irradiation was investigated. METHODS: A prospective cohort of 29 patients (19 men, mean age 65 years) underwent HDR brachytherapy for inoperable lung cancer. All patients had completed external irradiation at least one month before entry into the study (mean (SD) dose 4400 (1481) cGy, completed 12.9 (21.3) months previously). Patients underwent outpatient bronchoscopic placement of 1-3 HDR brachytherapy catheters for delivery of 750-1000 cGy of intraluminal irradiation every two weeks on 1-3 occasions. Prospective evaluation before and four weeks after completion of HDR brachytherapy included assessment of indices of level of function, symptoms, extent of atelectasis (chest radiography), and bronchoscopic determination of degree of endobronchial obstruction. RESULTS: One hundred and eighteen catheters were placed in 81 treatments. Eleven of the 26 patients who underwent repeat bronchoscopy showed a reduction in the degree of endobronchial obstruction; five of 18 patients had radiographic improvement in the extent of atelectasis. Positive response rates ranged from 25% for signs and symptoms related to pneumonitis to 69% for haemoptysis. Performance status improved in 24% of patients. Two patients died before completion of the study protocol. Short term complications included one episode of non-fatal, massive haemoptysis, five of minor haemoptysis, and one pneumothorax. CONCLUSIONS: HDR brachytherapy may improve the degree of endobronchial obstruction, atelectasis, symptoms, and level of function with minimal short term complications in patients with recurrent or residual symptomatic disease following external irradiation.
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