Radiation Therapy

"Cancer is no longer the death sentence it once was," Joseph Leach, MD, an oncologist at Park Nicollet Cancer Center, says. New improvements continue to be made in all areas of cancer treatment, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. "In particular, great improvements have been made in chemotherapy and the new medicines used to treat cancer," Dr. Leach adds.

Safer drugs, convenient treatment

Chemotherapy uses a variety of drugs to kill rapidly growing cells, including cancer cells. In the past, chemotherapy drugs were often toxic and could damage healthy cells along with cancerous cells. The drugs usually were administered intravenously at clinics and often led to significant side effects, including hair loss, low blood counts and nausea.

"One of the greatest advancements in the past few years has been the development of drugs that specifically target cancer cells," Dr. Leach says. "They are generally less toxic and many are available in pill form. The new medications give patients greater control over their lives and how they spend their time."

How the new drugs work

Cancer cells can be differentiated from normal cells by unique proteins found on the cell surface or inside the cells. New drugs seek out and attack cells with these proteins. One example is HerceptinR, an antibody used to treat certain forms of breast cancer. The antibody binds to a unique protein on the cell surface. Similar drugs are available, or being developed, to treat other types of cancer.

Another new approach in medical treatment is the development of drugs that effectively starve cancer cells. "As cancer cells divide and form tumors, they send out signals for the body to supply nutrition by forming new blood vessels," Dr. Leach explains. "These blood vessels give cancer cells a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients, which are vital for rapid growth."

Just as the surfaces of cancer cells have abnormal concentrations of proteins, so do the signals sent by cancer cells. New drugs block these abnormal signals and prevent the production of new blood vessels. "Basically, the drugs tell the body to stop making blood vessels that feed the cancer. And because the tumors aren't being fed, they often stop growing or starve," Dr. Leach explains.

Other newly introduced drugs combine both strategies. They seek out and attack cancer cells, plus they inhibit the growth of new blood vessels that feed cells. "This technology is where the future of oncology is headed," Dr. Leach says. "Drugs like these are the fruit of the last 20 years of research. AvastinR is one example that has been approved for treating colon and lung cancers. It also is being studied to treat many other types of cancer," he adds.

Park Nicollet is participating in more than 100 clinical trials with new cancer treatments. "Offering opportunities to participate in innovative research is a high priority at Park Nicollet," Dr. Leach says. "This is important because the more we participate in clinical trials, the sooner we get breakthrough treatments that improve cancer survival."

Improvements in radiation therapy, surgery

Advances also are being made in radiation therapy, a treatment that uses energy to kill rapidly growing cancer cells. Radiosurgery is a new technique being developed and improved to pinpoint radiation therapy and avoid harming adjacent, healthy tissues. This is especially beneficial for treating tumors in the brain, spinal cord and other hard-to-reach places.

Park Nicollet just started using NovalisR, a type of shaped beam robotic surgery, which allows doctors to treat tumors with precise doses of radiation therapy. "It really expands our ability to offer focused radiation treatments on tumors in many organs throughout the body," Dr. Leach explains.

Other advancements

New advances also are being made in genetically analyzing cancers. "Traditionally, we offered chemotherapy to everyone who could potentially benefit," Dr. Leach explains. "By analyzing the genetics of certain cancers, we know which cancers are less likely to recur. This allows us to minimize unnecessary treatment. It also may allow us to customize treatment for a patient's particular cancer," he adds.

"I see a great deal of hope for the future," concludes Dr. Leach. "We're approaching a day when people will take medicine to keep cancer under control and will lead fairly normal lives."