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New technology, good medical staff lessen stress of radiation treatment

November 27, 2018

I am now winding up 44 radiation treatments for prostate cancer at the Christus St. Vincent Regional Cancer Center on West Zia Road, just a 15-minute drive from my home.

I found the Christus staff to be friendly and professional. The radiation equipment was up to date, and the facilities were accessible to people with disabilities. Many of the other patients I encountered were wheelchair users.

Throughout my journey with diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer, I have been sharing my experiences in this column, first in April and then in July, in hopes of encouraging older men to get the PSA screening, to provide information about available treatments and to ease anxiety.

I was one of about 100 men diagnosed with prostate cancer in New Mexico in 2017, according the American Cancer Society. While the disease, one of the most common types of cancer for U.S. men, kills tens of thousands every year, it’s also one of the most curable.

My five-day-a-week treatments began in late September and were scheduled at the same time each day; each generally took an hour, counting my travel time.

Each time, I was greeted by staff as I checked in. I walked through a relatively crowded front waiting area to get to the radiation waiting room.

There, patients with cancers below the neck were dressed in hospital gowns.

Conversations were in English and Spanish, and I always felt right at home.

Once my name was called, I’d go into a treatment room, hop on the table, lie down and place my legs in a cast that was specially made for me.

The radiation therapists adjusted my positioning under a large machine with arms that would rotate around my entire body.

Radiation therapy, done properly, is technically difficult: Precision is essential, and the alignment at the Christus cancer center was guided with a CAT scan.

My radiation therapists were friendly and each day asked how I was doing as they made their adjustments.

After the therapists left the room, I was remotely adjusted a little more on the table, and some robotic arms were moved into place.

Finally, I heard a buzz that, according to the radiation physicist, was to let me know the high-energy photons were being released. I would have preferred silence.

Once a week, I met with a nurse who directed me to step on the scale, took my vitals and reviewed my medications.

Next, my radiation oncologist tactfully asked about any side effects I had experienced during the previous week.

I felt lucky to report only some minor urinary tract discomfort.

Thankfully, during the last few decades, there have been significant improvements in the way external beam radiation therapy is delivered.

According to a study published earlier this month in Urology Practice Journal, the delivery of higher doses of radiation with the contemporary intensity modulated radiation equipment has resulted in better treatment outcomes and fewer gastrointestinal and sexual side effects than those experienced by men treated with external beam radiation therapy in the mid-1990s.

The men in the study of localized prostate cancer treatment reported more minor urinary side effects, similar to mine.

According to my oncologist, radiation will keep killing cancer cells for weeks or months after my treatment has ended.

I had originally considered radiation treatment at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center in Houston, and I followed most of the MD Anderson pretreatment protocols, including an early colonoscopy and a SpaceOAR injection.

SpaceOAR is an injected gel that is used to protect the colon. I had the procedure done at the UNM Cancer Center, as it was not available in Santa Fe.

Additionally, a T3-MRI was performed by UNM Hospital. The MRI data was used by my radiation oncologist for a more precise treatment algorithm and to assist the radiation therapist and radiation physicist with the treatment preparation and monitoring.

The higher image MRI is now available at Santa Fe Imaging.

I will be to be monitored with regular PSA blood tests beginning three months after radiation treatment.

I will continue to exercise regularly to fight any ongoing fatigue and to build back any lost muscle due to my six months on Lupron, a hormone therapy used to enhance the radiation treatment.

And, after the holidays, I might even start dieting to deal with the 10 pounds I have gained around my waist.

Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center. He can be reached at a@winnegar.com.

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