The ability to hold one’s breath is very important in some sports, like free diving and swimming. This skill can also benefit breast cancer patients receiving targeted radiation treatment, according to new research published in the British Journal of Radiology.

One of the most effective ways to treat breast cancer is with radiation therapy — radiotherapy — which is typically used in people who have had a lumpectomy to get rid of any remaining mutated cells still in the breast or armpit after surgery, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. During these approximate two-minute treatment sessions, radiation beams are directed from several angles to intersect and destroy the cancerous tumor. Patients are usually asked to hold their breath while this happens to prevent nearby healthy tissue from being destroyed. However, most radiotherapy is delivered while patients are still breathing because many are not able to hold their breath for that long. Researchers at the University of Birmingham wanted to see if it was possible to train these patients to hold their breath for two minutes. However, they found it possible to train the patients to achieve single prolonged breath holds of over five minutes.

“For patients .. the whole cancer treatment process seems ‘passive,’” researcher Michael Parkes told Medical Daily. “Here for the first time we were training them to do something where they could contribute and they could see themselves getting better and better.”

Parkes and his colleagues recruited 15 breast cancer patients who were already undergoing radiotherapy for their study. None had respiratory, cardiovascular or neurological disease, diabetes or obesity, and all were non-smokers with no previous experience holding their breath for extended periods of time. So that they could help patients naturally raise their blood oxygen levels and reduce blood carbon dioxide levels, researchers trained the patients to maintain a relaxed posture and practice inhaling and exhaling to maximum effect. Patients wore face masks that enabled the scientists to detect whether or not the patients were breathing. After training, researchers found that the average breath hold of the participants was 5.3 minutes, significantly above the target goal of two minutes.

“We knew from experiments on healthy volunteers (mostly staff and students) that 7 minutes of safe breath-holds were feasible,” Parkes said. “We predicted that because of illness, because they are patients and because they are older, [the cancer patients] just would not hold for as long. As long as they could hold for two minutes we would have been satisfied… On the first day after practice and training, the first patient held for over three minutes But what really surprised us was that on subsequent days, everyone does even better.”

The technique could also benefit patients who have tumors of the lung, esophagus, stomach, liver, and other tissues in the chest and abdomen area, since “every tissue in the chest and abdomen moves with breathing” and breath-holding can mitigate damage to healthy tissues.

Prolonged breath holding does come with some health risks. According to the American Heart Association, breath-holding can raise blood pressure and muscle cramping. Researchers of the current study also knew this, which is why they monitored the participants' oxygen levels and blood pressure during the study.

The findings could make the process of receiving targeted radiotherapy easier on patients and greatly improve the long-term survival and quality-of-life of breast cancer patients. However, more research is needed to understand how this technique will work on those who are overly anxious or have compromised lung function.

Source: Parkes M, Green J, Stevens S. Safely Prolonging Single Breath-Holds to >5 Minutes in Cancer Patients; Feasibility and Applications for Radiotherapy. British Journal of Radiology . 2016.