A one-two punch for cancer

October 3, 2011 2:30:36 PM PDT
When cancer spreads from one area of the body to the brain, it can be deadly.

Even if a tumor is removed, up to 40 percent of the time, the cancer cells return. Now, doctors are using an approach that saves time -- and could save lives.

Beth Hoffer has traveled the world.

"I've been to Australia, New Zealand. I've been to Ireland and Eastern Europe, and Sweden and all over," she said.

But the real journey of her life began five years ago when doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer.

"I remember when they told me it was cancer, I actually laughed because I was in such disbelief," Hoffer said.

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

"I was just so shocked," Hoffer 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 Beth 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 return of the tumor at the surgical site," A. Gabriella Wernicke, MD, MSc Radiation Oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital said.

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," Theodore H. Schwartz, MD Neurosurgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, said.

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," Hoffer said.

Beth is 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 has spread to the brain. Doctors can implant anywhere from five to 35 seeds -- depending on the size of the tumor area. Patients who have the seeds do emit small doses of radiation. Doctors told Beth she should try to avoid being around pregnant women and children for a few weeks.