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Focused cancer treatment targets big men

June 2, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Men over a certain weight, or those with sizeable frames, were previously unable to get certain high-tech treatments for prostate cancer. However, a new type of proton beam therapy is giving those men a new option to treat the disease.Gene Hagerman's large frame once gave him an athletic edge. Since his college days, he has been known as a big guy.

"I was ready to go to the Chicago Bears that year but they thought I needed to grow a little bit," said Gene. "Obese they call us, but I think of us as large people."

When Gene was diagnosed with prostate cancer, his size got in the way of the treatment he needed. At nearly 400 pounds and 63-inch hips, proton therapy wasn't an option.

"They were screening people based on size of hips. Obviously, my height and weight eliminated me," said Gene.

The therapy uses proton beams to kill cancer cells. Compared to radiation, it is more precise and has fewer side effects. But there were limits on how far the beam would penetrate into the body -- until now.

In the past, the beam scattered the protons, which limited how far they could travel in the body. Using a technique called "uniform scanning," doctors direct a sharper proton beam into the body. It penetrates deeper with better accuracy.

"With the uniform scanning we can pretty much treat all the prostate patients that come," said Zuofeng Li, DSc, Physics Director, University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute.

After eight weeks of treatment, Gene's tumor shrank by half.

"When I left, my PSA level dropped from 6.8 to 3.8," said Gene, who is staying active.

Gene says he is grateful his cancer treatment didn't discriminate.

"It's really important for people who are my size -- men who need this treatment -- to have it available to them," said Gene.

Uniform scanning is also an option for patients with large tumors that are close to vital organs. Along with prostate cancer, doctors hope to soon use it for brain, spine, head and neck tumors.

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