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Killing cancer with pinpoint precision

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About five months after Kathy’s 50th birthday, she started experiencing shortness of breath and chest pain. Fearing a heart attack, Kathy called 911 and was rushed to the hospital.

After undergoing a series of tests, Kathy’s doctor told her she had lung cancer – a diagnosis she least expected. “Even though I was a smoker, I never thought this would happen to me,” she says.

Part of her treatment included radiation therapy. “Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to damage cancer cells and prevent them from growing and dividing,” explains Lemuel Ariaratnam, MD, a radiation oncologist in the Virtua Fox Chase Cancer Program and a member of the Virtua Fox Chase Adjunct Faculty Panel.

Because radiation therapy is so effective, nearly half of all cancer patients receive it either alone or in combination with another type of cancer treatment.

Many ways to treat cancer
Many patients do not realize that all radiation therapy is not the same. As technology advances, the way radiation is delivered changes; it becomes more efficient and precise.

Catherine Kim, MD, a radiation oncologist in the Virtua Fox Chase Cancer Program and a member of the Adjunct Faculty Panel, says: “At Virtua, we continually update our technology to provide our patients with the fastest and most precise radiation treatment.”

For patients, that means better outcomes. Faster treatment means patients spend less time on the treatment table, making the process more comfortable. Increased precision means more radiation is applied to the tumor and not to healthy surrounding tissue. “This helps reduce unwanted side effects and increases patients’ quality of life,” says Dr. Kim.

Treatment in two to four minutes
Volumetric modulated arc therapy, or VMAT, is Virtua’s most advanced radiation therapy. It provides treatment in a fraction of the time of older technologies. “With VMAT, patients receive treatment in as little as two to four minutes per session in comparison to older technologies, which take 10 to 12 minutes per session,” says Dr. Ariaratnam.

Rapid radiation therapy is especially important for patients like Kathy who have cancer in a part of the body that moves.

“As a person breathes, the lungs move and so does the tumor. So, for these patients, the faster we can treat them, the less movement there’ll be during treatment. And that means less radiation exposure to healthy tissue and more to the tumor,” says Dr. Kim.

Cancers move between treatments
While certain cancers move during treatment, others move slightly between treatments. For example, the prostate is located next to the bladder. As the bladder fills with urine, it expands and moves the prostate. “The prostate can move up to half an inch between treatments,” says Dr. Ariaratnam. “Because of this, we use cone beam computed tomography (CT) to pinpoint the cancer before we provide radiation therapy. This imaging technology, in coordination with rapid radiation therapy, enables us to deliver more precise treatment.”

Radiation placed inside the body
Virtua offers the most current forms of brachytherapy, where the radiation source is placed inside or next to the tumor.

To treat breast cancer, a tube-like applicator is surgically inserted into the breast. Radiation goes through the tube and is directed by a multi-channel delivery system. This system provides greater control over the radiation resulting in less skin irritation.

Another benefit for patients is decreased treatment time. With conventional methods, patients with breast cancer would have to be treated over six or seven weeks. With the newest brachytherapy method, eligible patients can be treated twice a day for just five days.

Virtua has radiation oncology services in Mount Holly, Voorhees, Marlton and Washington Township.