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Procedure uses heat to zap away spinal tumors

A new procedure uses heat to zap away spinal tumors, helping to relieve pain for some cancer patients.
December 30, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Depending on the type of cancer, many patients will find that the disease spreads to their bones. The spine is the most common site, and it can mean severe pain as tumors grow and press on nerves. Now, there's a new way to heat up and zap away those cancerous cells.

A simple walk with her granddaughter is a victory for Michaelene D'Ambrosio. Six months ago, she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer.

"Seventy percent of my breast tissue was tumor," said D'Ambrosio.

The tumor had spread to her spine, causing severe pain.

"I couldn't bend. I couldn't reach. I couldn't walk. I couldn't sleep. The pain was just constant," said D'Ambrosio.

Then D'Ambrosio found Dr. Rakesh Donthineni, who treats spinal tumors with a procedure called STAR ablation.

"The goal truly is to kill the tumor," said Donthineni.

First, he inserts a needle into the spine. Next, he ablates the tumor with heat that reaches 100 degrees or more. Donthineni then fills in the hole with cement. The ablation does not carry the same side effects as traditional chemo or radiation, and 95 percent of patients report pain relief.

"You're reducing the size of the tumors. You're reducing the effect on improving the quality of life, and that's the goal in these patients," said Donthineni.

Risks can include pain, infection, hemorrhage and nerve injury that can lead to paralysis. But D'Ambrosio is thrilled with the results.

"I have been pain-free since the surgery," she said.

The doctor says he can ablate multiple tumors at the same time. Patients may experience some back pain, and there's always a risk that the tumors can grow back. The procedure typically takes 45 minutes from start to finish.