A cancer treatment now available at St. Charles has the potential to transform cancer care for women in our community who have gynecologic cancer, according to Dr. Whitney Sumner, a radiation oncologist.

Dan Nicewonger and Dr. Whitney Sumner
Dan Nicewonger and Dr. Whitney Sumner

For some types of gynecologic cancers, like cervical cancer, treatment using external beam radiation can limit the delivery of an effective dose due to damage to surrounding tissues as it passes through the skin and surrounding organs to get to the tumor or area that requires treatment.

This newly available treatment, called brachytherapy, reduces that risk by providing radiation from INSIDE the body. This reduces possible damage to skin, and nearby organs – and provides even more effective targeted treatment. It’s able to treat right at the site of the tumor with minimal spread of dose, according to Sumner.

Sumner has been working with physicist Dan Nicewonger and a team at St. Charles to bring this new treatment to St. Charles for more than a year. In December the team was able to treat their first patient and already have several more on the schedule. Before brachytherapy was available at St. Charles, patients would often travel for treatment or choose to forego radiation treatment all together.

For some patients with endometrial cancer, brachytherapy alone is the recommended therapy to reduce the risk of local recurrence. “External beam radiation therapy is too aggressive of a therapy for some of these early-stage patients – a lot of patients would forego any therapy or have to travel to Portland,” said Sumner.

Currently, St. Charles Bend is able to provide brachytherapy treatment to patients experiencing endometrial cancer, cervical cancer and other gynecologic cancers.

Nicewonger explains because the radiation is delivered through a closed system hollow tube inserted into the patient’s body, the patient never touches anything radioactive.

The patient does not feel or hear anything from the radiation source during treatment.

The radiation dose is delivered from a tiny radioactive source material, smaller than a rice grain, that travels along the hollow tube. The physicians are able to shift the direction and location of the dose allowing targeted treatment within a millimeter in accuracy.

“It’s actually kind of simple – it goes along a path and is very predictable,” said Nicewonger.

In the future, Sumner and Nicewonger would like to see brachytherapy also offered to treat skin cancer, prostate cancer and potentially gastrointestinal cancers. But for now, they are just excited to begin making a meaningful difference in the lives of many patients.

Sumner expects that they will treat about 25-30 patients a year, with each of those patients requiring about three to five treatments.

“Our hope and long term goal is to optimize our process and build on our expertise to become a destination for brachytherapy,” said Sumner.

For Sumner, this profession was a natural calling. As someone who always loved math and science, but also wanted to help people directly – radiation oncology, and particularly brachytherapy, is a perfect fit.

“How often do you get to use math and physics that are so profoundly interesting, in a way that has a real impact on this person sitting in front of you?” said Sumner. “I love this work. It means we get to keep our Central Oregon patients closer to where they feel comfortable to get the care they need.”

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