Thursday, May 26, 2011 | 1:55 a.m.
- New cancer treatment faster, more accurate (5-25-2011)
Until last June, cancer patients in Southern Nevada had but one way to treat tumors using radiation.
Patients had to come into clinics such as the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada five days a week for up to seven weeks to be treated for cancer using the conventional Varian radiation therapy machine.
At the Cancer Centers, thanks to a two-year, $10 million investment in advanced cancer-fighting technologies, doctors now can treat patients more quickly and with more precision than ever before.
At the heart of the new technologies being implemented is the CyberKnife radiosurgery machine at the Cancer Centers’ Summerlin location, 655 N. Town Center Drive. The $6 million state-of-the-art machine represents a breakthrough in treating hard-to-reach tumors, said James Sanchez, Cancer Centers president.
“We have often found ourselves in situations where the tumor was isolated and very difficult to get to from a surgical standpoint,” Sanchez said. “CyberKnife opens the door to treating tumors that weren’t possible to treat before.”
Ionized radiotherapy — using low doses of radiation to shrink tumors — has been a mainstay in cancer treatment for nearly 100 years. In the past few decades however, oncologists have developed a new method called radiosurgery to deliver higher doses of radiation to shrink and destroy tumors.
These high doses of radiation posed a challenge for radiation oncologists treating tumors in sensitive areas such as the brain or spine, Sanchez said. One of the downsides of radiation therapy has always been “fallout,” where the radiation treatment affects surrounding, healthy cells, causing “tremendous side effects” such as swelling, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and hair loss.
Furthermore, while normal tissues might be able to recover from low doses of radiation, they would be obliterated from higher doses, Sanchez said. Precision and accuracy became of paramount importance, he said.
“By being more accurate and being able to define the radiation to a very precise location, you reduce fallout. Therefore you have a higher rate of cure and a lower rate of complications,” Sanchez said. While a conventional Varian machine delivers radiation on a fixed rotational axis, the new CyberKnife machine uses a robotic arm with six degrees of freedom, said Raul Meoz, the medical director of Las Vegas CyberKnife at Summerlin. This flexible arm allows for full movement and precise delivery of radiation to small areas the size of a pen cap, he said.
“We wanted a device that could deliver high doses of radiation to very small areas,” Meoz said. “This is ideal for patients who can’t have surgery because of cardiac or pulmonary reasons.”
Higher dosages of radiation can lead to faster treatment times, Meoz said. Conventional radiation therapy can take seven weeks of daily five-minute treatments. With the CyberKnife machine, patients can finish treatment in three to five days, although each session can take up to an hour.
And because the cost of treatment is based on units of radiation being administered, it costs about the same to be treated with the CyberKnife as opposed to the conventional Varian, Sanchez said.
“Our group now has the ability to perform the same technologies as any other location, and it’s just a lot more convenient than to have patients leave the city to get treatment,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez estimates that in the two years before the CyberKnife purchase, the Comprehensive Cancer Centers sent more than 100 patients to California and Arizona. With the purchase of the CyberKnife machine, Las Vegas joins Reno in the state and about 200 locations worldwide to offer the treatment.
As part of the $10 million upgrade, the Cancer Centers also purchased an updated Varian machine called SmartArc and a new linear accelerator to administer radiosurgery to patients at its Henderson location in St. Rose Dominican Hospitals’ Siena Campus. Additional breast ultrasound machines as well as a PET-CT scanner to identify and diagnose cancers are being purchased in the second year of the technology upgrade, Sanchez said.
“It’s so vitally important to keep Las Vegas in the present future in terms of health care,” he said. “Technology, such as what we have now, will play a very vital role in the future of cancer care.”