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Tiny glass beads help kill cancer

October 2, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The majority of people who develop liver cancer often die within a year of diagnosis. That's because 90-percent of patients have tumors too large or too complicated for surgery. Now doctors are now turning to a powerful treatment that uses tiny glass beads to kill the cancer. It turned out to be a life-saver for a man who thought he was out of options.If you study the statistics, Doug Waldron shouldn't be here. Doctors told the 73-year-old grandfather his time was up.

"I think they gave me four to six weeks," said Waldron.

"We've been together 40 years, and to me it's not enough time yet," said Doug's wife, Diane Waldron.

Doug had lung cancer, but that wasn't the main concern. It was the 10 inch cancerous tumor taking over his liver.

Doctors couldn't operate because the tumor was too big. They turned to a treatment called radioembolization. In Doug's case, they injected six million radioactive microspheres or glass beads into the tumor. Each bead, which is smaller than the width of a strand of hair, emits radiation to kill the cancer.

"It is a really high dose of radiation concentrated in a very, very small area," explains radiologist Dr. Riad Salem.

The concentration made Doug sick for a month.

"I knew it going in that if this did not work there was nothing more that could be done. It was over," said Diane.

But then, the scans started to tell a different story.

"Over time, the size of the tumor regressed more and more," said oncologist Dr. Mary Mulcahy.

"It got smaller and smaller and smaller," said Diane.

"And low and behold, nearly all of the tumors completely dissolved and disappeared," said Dr. Salem.

"It's a miracle," said Doug.

Doug also had surgery to remove the lung cancer and within a year went from his death bed to being cancer-free.

"He's the man of my life. Life wouldn't be worth living without him," said Diane.

"Without her I don't think I would have made it," said Doug.

The radio-active beads aren't always enough to shrink tumors alone, but it was Doug and Diane's only hope and it worked.

For Doug, radioembolization was a one-time injection that was done as an outpatient procedure. Doctors say it can also be used to shrink a tumor enough to make the patient eligible for chemo or surgery. The treatment is used mainly for liver and colorectal cancer and tumors of the blood vessels.

Web Extra Information: Beating Cancer With Beads

BACKGROUND:

Liver cancer begins in the cells of the liver -- the football-sized organ that sits in the upper right portion of the abdomen, beneath the diaphragm and above the stomach. It is one of the most common cancers in the world, and rates of liver cancer are increasing in the U.S. According to the National Cancer Institute, in just the first eight months of 2009, more than 22,000 people in the U.S. had been diagnosed with liver cancer and more than 18,000 people died from it. Typically, most cancer that occurs in the liver begins in another area of the body, such as the colon, lung or breast.

SYMPTOMS:

Possible signs of adult primary liver cancer include a lump or pain on the right side, caused by swelling of the liver. Other symptoms include a hard lump on the right side just below the rib cage, discomfort in the upper abdomen on the right side, pain around the right shoulder blade, unexplained weight loss, jaundice, unusual tiredness, nausea and loss of appetite.

TREATMENT:

Many times liver tumors are too large to operate on or treat with chemotherapy. A new treatment called radioembolization takes advantage of your body's anatomy to deliver a large dose of radiation to the tumor and minimal amounts to those areas not affected. The radioactive particles are about the size of talcum powder particles and are delivered to the tumor through a catheter inserted in the groin. The small tube is threaded up to the liver. The radiation is in the form of beta particles, which travel about 2 millimeters through the tissues and do not cause any significant radiation outside the patient's body.

The outpatient procedure takes about an hour and patients are given a local anesthetic. It is a powerful treatment and can make a patient sick for a couple days or weeks. Patients may be candidates for radioembolization if they are not a candidate for liver transplantation, surgery or chemotherapy.

The prognosis for primary liver cancer is usually poor when surgery is not an option. For these patients, radioembolization is typically used as a palliative therapy to improve quality of life, improve length of survival, and in some cases, it may be chosen as a therapy to shrink a tumor in order to prepare a patient for a curative liver transplant. In some rare cases, however, the radioembolization itself is enough to kill the liver tumor.

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