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New technology shortens cancer treatment time

Radiation therapists Laura Anderson, left, and Laverne Halliday operate a linear accelerator at Winchester Medical Center. Katie Demeria/Daily (Buy photo)

By Katie Demeria

Robert Bachelor, 75, has been around the world eight times. He now owns three businesses in Warren County, and this year was diagnosed with two different cancers.

But with help from a new cancer treatment program at Winchester Medical Center, it only took one week for doctors to treat Bachelor's lung cancer.

Stereotactic body radiotherapy is a type of radiation that uses robotics to pinpoint the exact location of cancer cells, delivering high doses of radiation to that specific area. It allows oncologists to save healthy cells from receiving radiation, reducing the side effects patients exhibit after treatment.

The treatment can be used to treat lung, spine and brain cancers.

The medical center is one of the few hospitals in the country that has access to stereotactic treatment, thanks to its partnership with the University of Virginia and the UVA Physicians Group.

Cori Ashton, the Director of Oncology Operations at Winchester Medical Center, said radiation oftentimes has to be directed to a larger area because malignant cells are hard to pinpoint when patients breathe.

"It's like hitting a moving target," Ashton said. "What stereotactic radiation allows us to do is become more precise, sparing those healthy cells from the radiation."

Alternative modes of treatment would have risked exposing Bachelor's healthy lung and chest to radiation, said Dr. Bruce Flax, a radiation oncologist at the center. Without stereotactic radiation, Bachelor may have had difficulty swallowing or experienced skin irritation.

"I had very minor side effects," Bachelor said. "After the last one, I just had a little tiredness for a few days."

That tiredness, Bachelor said, did not stop him from going about his daily routine as the owner of Melting Pot Pizza, Postal Business and Papillon Racing Stables.

In fact, little about Bachelor's lung cancer treatment slowed him down. One of the greatest benefits to using stereotactic techniques, Flax said, is a shorter treatment time.

"The point of stereotactic is, because it's so precise, you can deliver higher doses of radiation over a shorter period of time," he said. "From a clinical standpoint, that's probably superior compared to what we do normally."

Because of the precision of stereotactic technologies, Bachelor was only treated for about 30 minutes every day for five consecutive days.

"It has minimal impact in people's quality of life in an adverse way," Flax said.

It is still too early to tell if Bachelor's lung cancer is completely gone, but he was told that there is about a 95 percent chance that the radiation removed the malignant cells.

"But you know, as a horseman around the track, and a gambler, I'll take those odds any day of the week," he said.

The first use of stereotactic treatment at the center was on April 22. Since then, the oncology department has used it in 23 cases: 13 in the lung, 9 in the brain and one in the spine.

The usefulness of the treatment is particularly evident with brain cancer.

"Usually, in order to treat a lesion in the brain, we would have to apply radiation to the whole brain," Ashton said.

That sort of treatment would oftentimes incapacitate the patient at some point, and those lesions can be as small as 3-4 millimeters in size.

"But with stereotactic radiation, we can pinpoint the exact lesion and spare normal brain cells," Ashton added.

The same improvements have been made to treating malignant cells on the spine. Applying too much radiation to the spine could result in paralysis or even death, Ashton said. Those possibilities are drastically reduced with stereotactic treatment.

The precision offered by the stereotactic technology is due largely to the machine's flexibility. Patients are strapped to long tables that can be tilted 60 degrees and slid beneath linear accelerators, which can rotate 360 degrees.

"It allows for incredibly precise treatment," Ashton said.

The center spent slightly over $1 million to upgrade its linear accelerators to the stereotactic technology.

Bachelor praised the treatment.

"It certainly is a wonderful procedure," Bachelor said. "It beats all the invasive treatments, as far as I'm concerned."

The treatment itself is slightly more expensive than others, Ashton said, but because patients come in less frequently, the costs usual run the same as average cancer treatments.

Bachelor will soon know for sure if his lung cancer has been successfully treated. He was also diagnosed with kidney cancer, but that, too, is almost gone.

After nearly beating both cancers, Bachelor is back to his old routine. And he still lives his life according to two ideas:

"The first is wherever you go, there you are, and the other is I feel more like I do now than when I started," he said. "If I ever wrote a book, then that'd be the title."

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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