A diagnosis of cancer of any kind can surely be devastating. But for those with prostate cancer in the East Valley, there is new hope when it comes to obtaining targeted treatment with fewer side effects.
"‘Am I going to die?' That's the first thing you ask yourself," said John Millerd, a 74-year-old prostate cancer patient from Gilbert. "It wakes you up real quick."
It was also a concern for Millard's wife of 50 years, Helga.
"I thought for sure he was going to die," she said softly. John has a family history of cancer and his father died from it.
However, over a year after diagnosis and from the beginning of treatment, it appears that Millerd's treatment is successful. After two checkups - the most recent a week ago - Millerd's numbers are all within normal ranges.
Millerd received his treatment with the help of Calypso -- commonly called "GPS for the body." It's a technology relatively new to the East Valley that allows doctors to see in real-time where the prostate is located. Because of the location of the gland, a full bladder or any gas can change its position. Coughing, sneezing or even breathing can move it. Because of these normal physiological functions, radiation can hit healthy tissue.
Radiation is not a new technology when it comes to prostate cancer; usually it's the first course of action, said Dr. Gregory Maggass, Millard's doctor and a radiation oncologist at Arizona Radiation Oncology Specialists in Gilbert.
"We've learned that a higher dose of radiation has a better chance of killing cancer," Maggass said. But with higher doses comes higher risk of complications, he said.
Hitting healthy tissue can cause urinary frequency and urgency complications, as well as some painful complications, Maggass said. Sometimes it can lead to rectal bleeding or rectal perforations, the latter of which would necessitate surgery.
Besides feeling a little more tired than usual, Millard said he feels normal and didn't have many complications during his treatment.
"It's a lot easier than I thought it would be," Millard said looking at his wife. "We usually went out shopping or out to eat lunch after the treatments."
Treatments can be as short as a few minutes and people often come in for treatments before heading to work, Maggass said.
"I talked to a man in the waiting room one time who said he was on his lunch break," Millard said.
"We find times that work around tee times," Maggass said with a laugh. "But that's life in the East Valley."
Three tiny rice-sized beads, called Beacon electromagnetic transponders, are inserted to the prostate. The three transponders guide doctors and technicians to see exactly where the prostate sits in the body for the duration of the radiation session. Because it gives an exact location to within fractions of a centimeter, doctors can prescribe a higher dose of radiation, leading to fewer sessions.
"The typical treatment is a full eight-to-nine weeks, Monday through Friday," Maggass said. "With a higher dose, a lot of patients are treated in five weeks, or even five sessions, if it's in an early stage."
In November, Arizona Radiation Oncology Specialists matched the GPS tracking abilities of Calypso with the TrueBeam Linear Accelerator, a machine that can deliver a high dose of radiation in a cloud-like shape, Maggass said.
"It's almost a surgical dose of radiation and it can kill cancer cells very rapidly," Maggass said.
And rather than just give a straightforward beam of radiation, it can create cloud-shapes, allowing doctors to avoid hitting healthy tissue, and focusing on the areas of cancer cells.
"When you have cancer, you can't expect everything to be just peaches and cream," Millerd said.
But for Millerd, despite a nine-week treatment last winter, all signs are pointing to peaches and cream.
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