Precision Cancer Fighting

July 7 2020
Precision Cancer Fighting

Advanced radiation technology kills cancer cells but spares surrounding organs 

The surface guided radiation therapy (SGRT) killing Gary McElroy’s breast cancer cells takes about five minutes, at most, to do its work. If you count positioning time and preparation, it adds up to about 10 to 15 minutes that the 64-year-old spends lying on the treatment table at the Parker Adventist Hospital Cancer Center before getting on with his day.  

When the beam attacks his cancer, he feels nothing. There are a few sounds, other than the click of a mouse and the voice of the technician.  

“If it wasn’t for having to breathe when they tell you, you could go to sleep,” McElroy says.  

He may not sleep through treatment, but McElroy can rest easy knowing that the 25 SGRT treatments he received are a s precise as they are effective in destroying his cancer.  

What is SGRT?

SGRT is a highly advanced system for precisely delivering radiation to a tumor, while sparing surrounding tissue and organs. SGRT uses three high-definition cameras to compare the patient’s body surface in real time to three-dimensional CT scan images of the tumor and patient, says Andrew Tanner, MD, medical director of radiation oncology at Parker Adventist Hospital.  

The cancer Center at Parker Adventist Hospital uses the system for cancers of the head and neck, abdomen, prostate, and breast. Parker Adventist Hospital technicians are so expert that they now routinely help train colleagues from other cancer centers around the world using SGRT.  

Greater precision, fewer side effects 

Radiation therapy, in which radiation beams are directed at cancer cells to kill or shrink them, is an effective cancer-fighting agent. But in the past, there has been risk of radiation damage to surrounding organs. That’s especially a concern among breast cancer patients like McElroy, and particularly those whose cancer is on the left side, near the heart.  

But SGRT allows precise delivery of radiation directly to a tumor. A green light alerts the technician when everything is aligned properly. And if it’s not, the software automatically halts the treatment, Tanner says.  

“With older equipment, we couldn’t tell if patients were holding their breath in the best way during delivery of the radiation. With this system, you can tell when everything is lined up perfectly,” Tanner says.  

At Parker Adventist Hospital, radiation technicians pair the precision technology of SGRT with a technique called deep inspiration breath hold (DIBH), which uses the body’s natural rhythm while breathing in to move the heart down and away from the treatment area. The result is a significantly reduced risk of the heart being unnecessarily exposed to radiation during treatment for left-side breast cancer, Tanner says. And, because a smaller area is treated, side effects are minimal.  

McElroy, an inspector for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, ever missed a day of work after his SGRT treatment, which he completed in June. The area around the location of the treatments has gotten a bit red, but otherwise, “I haven’t had any side effects at all.”  

Breast cancer strikes men, too!  

Gary McElroy credits a television news story with helping save his life. In December 2017, 9News reported on the death of Roland “Fatty” Taylor, a retired basketball player who spent his last season with the Denver Nuggets. McElroy was struck by the fact that Taylor, a man and retired athlete, died of breast cancer. McElroy, who works out and stays in shape – he’s completed an Ironman triathlon – said the story hit home. “I never thought I’d get cancer. I’m athletic; I eat right. But I realized, if a professional athlete can get it, then I can, too.”  

The story inspired McElroy to do something he never had before: a self-exam. “I found a lump,” McElroy says.  

McElroy had a double mastectomy and four months of chemotherapy before beginning surface guided radiation therapy (SGRT) at Parker Adventist Hospital. He also had genetic testing.  

“It turns out I have mutations on both BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes,” he says. Mutations on either of those genes are linked to greater risk of several types of cancer, including breast, ovarian, and prostate. And those mutations are inherited.  

So, his chance viewing of that news item on male breast cancer may have saved McElroy’s life, but it may also lead his five children to important knowledge of their own genetic makeup and cancer risks as well.  

In the meantime, McElroy is determined to spread the word that male breast cancer is real. “I tell people if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody.”  

Know the Signs 

Symptoms of male breast cancer are similar to the disease in women, and include: 

  • Lump 
  • Nipple pain or discharge 
  • Inverted nipple 
  • Enlarged lymph nodes under the arm 

What’s the Risk?  

For men, the chances of getting breast cancer are small: about one in 1,000.  

But some factors that increase a man’s odds are: 

  • Age: The average age a man is diagnosed with breast cancer is 68 
  • Higher-than-average estrogen levels, which can be caused by: Taking hormonal medications, exposure to hormones in the environment or being overweight or obese.  
  • Genetic mutations, such as BRCA-1 and BRCA-2  
  • Strong family history of breast cancer 
  • History of excessive alcohol consumption 
  • Liver disease