MRI-guided radiation system offers promising solution to cancer patients

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Four years ago, doctors diagnosed 51-year-old Lori Milla, of San Luis Obispo, with breast cancer that spread to her liver. (KABC)

Four years ago, doctors diagnosed 51-year-old Lori Milla, of San Luis Obispo, with breast cancer that spread to her liver.

Her doctors were able to keep the tumors at bay until about 18 months ago when a new spot showed up in a tough area for doctors to treat. The tumor was lodged between her pancreas and bowel tissue.

Surgery was out of the question, and Milla was told conventional radiation would do more harm than good.

Dr. Percy Lee, the chief of thoracic and gastrointestinal radiation oncology at UCLA Health, said, "It would not be safe. We would more likely actually harm healthy tissue than get rid of the cancer."

He added that tumors in the abdomen area are in constant motion.

"In this location, the tumor will just move around every second to second, day to day, or minute to minute," he said.

Lee recommended Milla try something new - an MRI-Guided radiation system called MRIdian. It looks like a standard MRI machine, but inside MRI-guided parts are constantly circling the patient.

This device allows doctors to move with the target in real time like they did in Lori's case.

"We changed the plan every day, on the fly, which has never been done in the history of radiation oncology," Lee said.

Doctors explain the technology by using a sports analogy.

They said imagine being a pro-basketball player, but every time you shoot the ball, you're blindfolded. That's essentially what happens during radiation treatment. Doctors target the cancer, but once the treatment starts, they can't see the cancer.

Lee said the MRIdian system changes the playing field, "It takes the blindfold off for radiation oncologists, and we can do this."

Doctors can also deliver stronger radiation doses in shorter periods of time, minimizing side effects.

Lori said her physicians back in San Luis Obispo couldn't believe their eyes when they saw her scans.

"There was the spot, there it was, and now it's gone!" she said.

Lee believes these types of advances will help lengthen lives, especially in people with aggressive cancers that keep coming back.

"We no longer think of metastatic cancer as a death sentence. At least I don't," Lee said.

Nine months after the treatment, Lori was cancer-free and very grateful.

"Every day is a gift, and feeling good is a gift and living is wonderful," she said.
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