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New technique aimed at stopping the spread of cancer

September 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
When cancer spreads from one area of the body to the brain, it can be deadly. That's why researchers focus not only on stopping tumors from growing, but also from spreading.

Oncologists say even if a malignant tumor is removed, up to 40 percent of the time, the cancer cells return. But a new approach is helping both doctors and patients plant the seeds of hope.

Beth Hoffer has traveled the world -- to Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Eastern Europe, Sweden and all over. But the real journey of her life began five years ago when doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer.

"I remember when they told me that it was cancer, I actually laughed because I was in such disbelief," she recalled.

The news got worse. After three years in remission, the cancer spread to Hoffer's lungs. She had those lesions removed, but a recent scan showed the cancer had traveled to her brain.

"I was just so shocked," she said.

Typically, surgeons remove the brain tumor and wait weeks for patients to heal before starting radiation, but that gives the cancer cells time to grow back. Doctors offered Hoffer a different solution -- radiation seeds. First, they remove the tumor. Then, during the same surgery, they implant the seeds directly into the brain. It's like two procedures in one.

"By implanting the seeds into the surgical cavity right away, we essentially avoid the wait and therefore prevent the potential recurrence of the tumor at the surgical site," said Dr. A. Gabriella Wernicke, a radiation oncologist at Weill Cornell Medical College.

The seeds contain an isotope called Cesium-131. Instead of traditional machines, where beams have to pass through the skull and brain, they deliver radiation directly to the tumor site.

"By delivering these seeds right into the cavity, we can give a very high dose of radiation focally to the bed of the tumor and prevent the radiation from spreading to the rest of the brain," said Dr. Theodore H. Schwartz, a neurosurgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital - Weill Cornell Medical College.

Cesium-131 allows radiation to be delivered quickly -- within about two weeks. The seeds are permanent, and patients only need one procedure.

"The fact that you don't have to go for daily radiation treatments, it was just wonderful," said Hoffer, who's now cancer free, and hoping to stay that way.

Radiation seeds are used in other cancers, but this is the first time they've been used in cancer that's spread to the brain. Because the seeds do emit small doses of radiation, Hoffer's doctor told her to avoid being around pregnant women and children for a few weeks.

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