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Advanced Treatments Fight Cancer With Pinpoint Precision

Publication: Healthy Magazine, McAllen

For many years, treating cancer was akin to extinguishing a candle with a hose. Traditional treatments, like chemotherapy and X-ray radiation, are still highly effective in many cases - but exposure to adjacent normal tissue often caused unwelcome side effects. Over the years, we've found ways to minimize unpleasant reactions with anti-nausea medications and technologic advancements, among others. These evolutions have enabled the majority of cancer treatments to be preformed without extended hospital stays. But as I look to the future, I am excited about treatment methods that have evolved from traditional approaches and may offer more precise treatment delivery. Their effectiveness and focus may result in less damage to healthy tissues, resulting in fewer side effects and improving the quality of life for our patients.

By Dr. Benjamin W. West, M.D.

Proton therapy is one of the most promising recent developments in cancer treatment, A proton is one of the particles that make up an atom. Using a massive 220-ton piece of equipment called a cyclotron, protons are separated from hydrogen atoms, accelerated up to two-thirds the speed of light and focused into a beam that a radiation oncologist can precisely direct at a tumor.

The proton beam can be delivered to match the shape of the tumor. This minimizes the damage to the surrounding healthy tissue and can be used in sensitive areas such as near vital organs, the spinal cord, head, neck and skull-base. Proton therapy is also the preferred radiation option for children because it can minimize damage to their smaller and still developing bodies. Proton therapy is not appropriate or necessary in every case, but because of its precision, which results in fewer side effects, it can positively affect a patient's quality of life both during and following treatment.

Larger than protons, but still tiny, fragments of DNA are also revolutionizing cancer treatment. Genetic and genomic testing is unlocking new understandings of cancer - and of how to fight it. Normal cells become cancer cells due to changes with their DNA. These mutations can be caused by damage from environmental sources (like cigarette smoke or toxic chemicals) or naturally occurring errors during the process of growing new cells (most age-related cancers). By testing tumors' DNA, oncologist can discover the mutations driving the cancer, which can then inform which treatments will be most effective. Underscoring this development's importance, clinical trials now often describe tumors not only by their location but also their DNA mutations.

Some new treatments, called targeted therapies, harness the cancer cells' irregularities to attack tumors. DNA mutations in cancer cells create unique characteristics or change how they function; they may grow and divide ultra-fast, have unique proteins present on their surface or be a different features. After identifying cancer cells, the treatment then either attacks the cancer cells themselves - leaving healthy cells unharmed - or can act as a beacon to attract tumor-fighting medications.

One in two men and one in three women will fight cancer in their lifetime. Advancements in cancer detection and treatment are creating more cancer survivors than ever before. Precise treatment methods are providing effective and more efficient, ensuring more cancer survivors can live a quality life following treatment.

To learn more about exciting advancements in cancer treatment, visit www.TexasOncology.com or call 1-888-864-I CAN(4226).

Dr. Benjamin W. West is a radiation oncologist at Texas Oncology-McAllen, 1901 South 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas.

This story originally appeared in Healthy Magazine, McAllen.

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