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Breathe Easier

Targeted Radiation Therapy for Lung Cancer Spares Healthy Tissue

When it comes to healthcare decisions, Sandra Hatcher leaves nothing to chance—especially after her colon cancer diagnosis five years ago.

“I’m careful about the doctors and treatments I choose,” says Hatcher, who worked in finance for the city of Waynesboro for 30 years. “I’ve done a lot of research and have sought out second and even third opinions at major cancer centers.”

When doctors discovered that Hatcher’s cancer had spread to her lungs, they suggested using the Calypso® system at Sentara Martha Jefferson, which would provide the most effective radiation therapy with the fewest side effects.

“The biggest advantage of Calypso is that you’re getting a high volume of radiation with much less damage to surrounding lung tissue,” says Sentara Martha Jefferson radiation oncologist Anthony Crimaldi, MD. “The machine knows to send the beam only when a tumor is in exactly the right position.”

A Shocking Diagnosis

Hatcher makes a healthy lifestyle a priority and gets regular cancer screenings, including colonoscopies. So when severe abdominal pain sent her to an emergency room at a health center near her home in Fishersville in March 2014, she could not believe what caregivers there were telling her.

“I was told that I needed emergency surgery because I had a blockage in my colon, and a tumor was evident in my liver,” recalls Hatcher. “When I asked what my estimated survival time might be, I was told 18 months to two years, since the cancer was stage 4 and had spread to my liver.”

Hatcher’s daughter, Britney, took a break from her real estate career in New York City to care for her mom. Over the next four years, Hatcher would face multiple health challenges as the cancer metastasized to her liver a second time, and then to her lungs twice.

She underwent chemotherapy, radiation therapy and four major surgeries. Through it all, she tried to stay positive and continued to research each suggested treatment.

“I want to be here for my daughter,” Hatcher says. “She dropped everything and came home for a year and a half to care for me. Her being there for me has meant everything.”

Turning to Calypso

Hatcher became a patient at Sentara Martha Jefferson when her oncologist, James Boyer, MD, joined the medical staff there. In spring 2018, she received eight stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR) treatments after a CT scan revealed four tumors in the center of her chest.

SABR is used to treat tumors in the breasts, lungs, colon, prostate, and head and neck area. The technique focuses an external beam of radiation on a small area and delivers very high doses to the tumor area only, sparing the surrounding healthy tissue as much as possible.

Hatcher received difficult news again in April 2019 when a scan showed a 6-millimeter tumor on the lower right lobe of her lung. That’s when Dr. Boyer and Dr. Crimaldi suggested the Calypso system, a type of stereotactic radiation treatment that has been in use at Sentara Martha Jefferson for more than a year.

Calypso is particularly helpful for treating tumors in organs and areas prone to movement, such as the lungs, prostate and liver. The machine accounts for the involuntary movement of these organs and delivers radiation only when the tumor is in the correct field.

How It Works

During an outpatient procedure, a doctor implants three tiny beacon transponders, each the size of a grain of rice, around the tumor.

When the patient arrives for treatment, a radiation oncologist and radiation therapist align the patient so to allow the focused beam of radiation to target a very specific area inside the beacons.

Acting as a “GPS for the Body®” the beacons communicate with the Calypso system, which sends radiation only when all three transponders are lined up properly in the frame.

“The beacons are placed just millimeters apart, so the radiation beam is aimed precisely at the tumor only, resulting in less damage to surrounding healthy tissue,” Dr. Crimaldi notes. “For lung cancer patients, that can prevent side effects, such as an acute or chronic cough, shortness of breath and potentially even the need to carry around oxygen.”

Since Calypso works with only three beacons, it’s used to treat one lesion at a time. A patient who has more than one tumor site could combine Calypso with other types of radiation therapy for the other tumors, Dr. Crimaldi explains.

Since Hatcher had only one spot to treat on this occasion, Calypso was an excellent option.

“Calypso took a matter of minutes, and it spotted the tumor right away,” Hatcher says.

Focusing on the Future

Hatcher’s tumor has shrunk enough that she’s no longer receiving radiation therapy. She recently celebrated her five-year “cancer-versary” and now fills her time exercising with her sister, planning events with friends and visiting her daughter in New York City.

In fact, Britney, who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, has taken a new direction with her career after her mom’s experience battling cancer and her own role as caretaker.

“It inspired my daughter to go back to school and take premed classes at Columbia University in New York,” Hatcher says proudly. “She’s preparing to apply to med school. With her temperament and her ability to speak to people and make them feel comfortable, I know she will make an excellent doctor.”

For more information on Varian’s Calypso® system and Soft Tissue and Surface Beacon® transponders, please call Sentara Martha Jefferson Cancer Care Center at 434-654-8401.

Low-Dose CT Screenings for Lung Cancer

Diagnosing lung cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages is now possible, thanks to the availability of low-dose CT screenings.

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the second-most common cancer in both men and women (excluding skin cancer), and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

In the past, by the time lung cancer was diagnosed, it often already would have spread and reached an advanced stage. Low-dose CT lung screenings can help find tumors earlier, frequently resulting in better treatment outcomes.

Sentara Martha Jefferson conducted 1,013 low-dose CT lung screenings in 2018. In all, 17 cancers were diagnosed before the patient reported any symptoms. Of these cancers, 14 were lung cancer and three were cancers of other types.

Who is Eligible for Low-Dose CT Lung Screenings?

Medicare and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPTF) recommend low-dose CT lung screening for high-risk patients as defined below:

•    Medicare: 55-77 years old with a 30-pack-year smoking history; must be a current smoker or have quit within the last 15 years

•    USPTF: 55-80 years old with a 30-pack-year smoking history; must be a current smoker or have quit within the last 15 years

NOTE: Eligibility criteria may vary, depending upon an individual’s insurance plan.

Those who have symptoms of a lung condition, such as a new cough or shortness of breath, at the time of screening are not eligible.

How Much Does it Cost?

Many insurance companies will cover a CT lung screening at no cost to the patient. However, costs may vary, depending on the insurance plan. Please confirm with your insurance company and speak with our CT lung screening navigator at 434-654-4487.

How Long Does it Take?

The CT lung screening exam takes about 15 minutes in total, with the actual scan lasting only 5-10 seconds.

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