Reprinted with permission from The Brownsville Herald, 2008
By Melissa McEver
Antoinette Connaughton underwent radiation treatments for uterine cancer close to home, which helped ease her anxiety.
"It's a good feeling to know that when we need help, the help is here," said Connaughton, a retired school administrator who lives in Brownsville. "(The treatment) was so convenient for me. I didn't have to interrupt my lifestyle."
Connaughton received one of two cancer treatment regimens newly available in the Rio Grande Valley. Previously, patients frequently had to travel outside the region to obtain high-dose rate brachytherapy or stereotactic radiosurgery, area doctors said.
High-dose rate brachytherapy - the one Connaughton received - typically is used to treat cervical, uterine, prostate and lung tumors. It involves placing radioactive material in and around a tumor for about 15 minutes at a time, and the therapy is complete after about four to five sessions.
"This treatment is a lot more precise (than other types of radiation)... and it's an outpatient procedure," said Dr. Carlos Gonzalez-Angulo, a radiation oncologist at South Texas Cancer Center in Brownsville. The center is part of Texas Oncology, a statewide network of cancer centers.
Texas Oncology recently purchased a mobile brachytherapy unit that the Valley's cancer centers will share, Gonzalez-Angulo said. The procedure is already offered in McAllen, but this is the first mobile unit to serve the Valley, he said.
The region's cancer centers already offered low-dose rate brachytherapy. Though still the standard radiation treatment for some types of cancer, each treatment lasts hours or days and the patient must stay in the hospital overnight, according to doctors and the American College of Radiology.
High-dose therapy is more convenient in part because the short bursts of radiation allow nurses and staff to have more contact with the patient, Gonzalez-Angulo said. Medical personnel have to stay out of the room only a few minutes to avoid radiation exposure, rather than for several hours.
Another treatment that's new to the Valley is stereotactic radiosurgery - a radiation therapy that uses precise X-ray beams to attack tumors in the brain.
A group of neurologists in Harlingen has performed the procedure on about five patients, they said.
Before now, those patients would have had to seek treatment in Houston or elsewhere in the state, said Dr. Jose Dones, a neurologist.
During the procedure - which may take 30 to 45 minutes - several carefully targeted X-ray beams converge on the treatment area like a "guided missile," he said. The therapy is more precise than whole-brain radiation and minimizes exposure of healthy tissue to radiation.
A variety of brain tumors and pituitary-gland tumors can be treated this way - including tumors that are lodged deeply in the brain and might be inoperable, Dones said.
Local neurologists predict about 100 patients a year will benefit from the treatment here.
Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance should at least partially cover both procedures, they said.
"We're giving hope to people that they can live longer, cancer-free," Dones said. "I think everybody deserves that."