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Cyberknife revolutionizing treatment in some cancer patients

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Photo courtesy of St. Mary's Medical Center Photo courtesy of St. Mary's Medical Center
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By JAMES E. CASTO
For The State Journal

HUNTINGTON,WV — Imagine a highly effective cancer treatment that involves no incision, no pain, no anesthesia and no hospitalization, one that requires little or no recovery time and offers an immediate return to one's daily activities.

Sounds like something out of "Star Trek," doesn't it?

But the CyberKnife system at St. Mary's Medical Center isn't science fiction. It's science fact and it's revolutionizing the treatment of many cancers. Since its introduction in 2007, the system at St. Mary's has provided hundreds of patients with precision radiation therapy in five or fewer treatments, compared with the course of 40 treatments generally required in traditional radiation therapy. 

The CyberKnife at St. Mary's is the only system of its type in the Tri-State area or anywhere in the state of West Virginia. It can be used to treat tumors in just about any part of the body — the head and neck, the spine, lung, prostate, liver and pancreas.

"Instead of a scalpel, CyberKnife uses a very focused beam of radiation to obliterate the tumor," explains Sanjeev Sharma, M.D., a board-certified radiation oncologist at St. Mary's. "The advantage is in the precision of the delivery of the radiation. It's a very large dose to a strictly defined area."

Radiation has been used to treat cancer for years, but what sets the CyberKnife apart is its unparalleled accuracy. It's a bit like the difference between, say, a shotgun and a rifle. When you fire a shotgun, the pellets from it spread out in a wide pattern. Similarly, traditional radiation treatment for cancer is applied to a broad field, which often means extensive damage to surrounding healthy tissue. In contrast, CyberKnife zeroes in on a tumor with a precise beam of radiation, much like a marksman aiming a high-powered rifle at a target.

The CyberKnife system combines continuous image-guidance technology with computer-controlled robotics to precisely deliver radiosurgery with sub-millimeter accuracy.

During the procedure, a patient reclines on a comfortable couch while computer controls maneuver the arm-like unit into the best position for administering treatment. The radiation source, called a linear accelerator, is located on the robotic arm and delivers concentrated beams of radiation to the tumor from multiple positions and angles. The concentrated radiation reduces the damage to tissues around the tumor.

St. Mary's CyberKnife Center has a unique feature known as the Synchrony Respiratory Tracking System, which compensates for patient movement during treatment. While other forms of cancer treatment require breath holding and no movement, the CyberKnife system moves with the patient, allowing normal breathing throughout the treatment.

The CyberKnife treatment session is painless. While undergoing a treatment patients can enjoy a restful landscape photograph projected on a screen over their heads and listen to music of their choice. Some patients fall asleep during the session. When the treatment is over a patient can leave the hospital and immediately resume his or her daily routine.

Philip Lepanto, M.D., a radiation oncologist at St. Mary's calls CyberKnife "an elegant way to treat tumors." He notes that patients who have tumors previously diagnosed as inoperable or untreatable may benefit from CyberKnife.

  "Patients love the short time required for the treatments," he said. "It's a real benefit to them."