Northwest Health Winter 2011

What's New

Radiation Therapy: More Precision, Less Time

Cancer patients at Group Health Medical Centers benefit from state-of-the-art technology.

Go to: Northwest Health Index

It's unusual for a patient to feel sadness at the end of his cancer treatment. But that's part of what John Blaine experienced after two years of care by Group Health clinicians.

Blaine, who early in 2009 was diagnosed with a rare heart tumor, developed a fondness for members of his medical team during his treatment which included surgery and radiation therapy. "I have made so many great personal associations with staff over the past two years," says the retired King County environmental biologist.

Among his caregivers is radiation oncologist Christopher Canning, MD, with Group Health Physicians, who oversaw Blaine's radiation therapy. That part of his treatment began early in the summer of 2010. For 33 days in a row, Blaine visited our Capitol Hill Campus in Seattle. He underwent treatment there with the most recent addition to the cancer-fighting arsenal at Group Health Medical Centers: a state-of-the-art Varian CliX linear accelerator.

The linear accelerator is part of an integrated system that includes a CT scanner to pinpoint tumors, and software that calibrates precise delivery of the cancer-killing radiation.

Radiation works by causing damage to the genetic material within cell walls; normal cells repair fairly easily while cancerous cells are fragile and difficult to repair. "You want to point the radiation as directly as possible to the cancerous cells and leave the non-cancerous cells alone," says Paul Herstein, MD, chief of the Radiation Oncology Department. "With the Varian CliX, we get a very high dose of radiation within the tumor, and a very low dose outside the tumor, so the normal tissue is relatively spared."

The new machine is also much faster than previous linear accelerators, he says. A radiation treatment that used to take as much as a half hour is now delivered in a few minutes. "We've seen a reduction in time of 80 to 90 percent. That's a very dramatic benefit for the patient," says Dr. Herstein. "For Group Health, the addition of this machine represents our commitment to the full spectrum of cancer care provided in our facilities by our physicians."

Care that leaves no stone unturned. Blaine, a Group Health member since 1978, experienced much of that full spectrum of care. His story began when he noticed that he was frequently short of breath. Soon, walking up a hill felt like he'd just run a mile. He wound up in a Group Health Urgent Care Center where a heart attack and stroke were ruled out.

More tests in subsequent days revealed a rare life-threatening, golf ball-sized tumor blocking the left atrium of his heart. He underwent surgery to remove it at Virginia Mason Medical Center. His Group Health Physicians cardiologist, Dr. Nathan Green, consulted with a variety of experts — within and outside of Group Health Medical Centers — to determine the exact nature of the rare tumor and the appropriate treatment.

Blaine couldn't be happier with his experience. "The doctors put their heads together to get at the root of the problem. They told me who they consulted with each time, and discussed with me what their thinking was and where to go from here. This was a very difficult problem-solving exercise. Thanks to their persistence, I'm still here today.

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