New radiation therapy offers Cleveland veterans better cancer treatment, fewer side effects

Published: Jul. 7, 2023 at 4:19 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Veterans with cancer now have access to some cutting-edge technology that not only helps better fight the disease but also helps them avoid difficult or damaging side effects.

Rick Wehe, a 74-year-old Vietnam-era Army veteran, had already been diagnosed years prior with an agent orange related leukemia when he got another upsetting diagnosis, lung cancer.

“Basically, I fell and thought I broke a rib. And they took x-rays and they thought they found something so they did an MRI, and they located the tumor,” he said.

He is grateful it was caught when it was.

“It’s like my guardian angel tripped me,” he joked.

For patients like him, surgery wasn’t an option.

But the Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cleveland now has new MRI guided radiation, in the MRIdian by View Ray, that can provide vets with cancer stronger, more targeted radiation.

“So the advantage of the more focused radiation stereotactic radiation is that we are able to be more precise and therefore limit the amount of radiation to some of the nearby organs, and that can decrease the side effects during treatment as well as long term,” said Dr. Charlene Khan, Service Chief of Radiation Oncology.

She says the MRI gives better definition and higher resolution, to help distinguish between the cancer, and surrounding normal tissue.

“For example, with the liver sometimes it’s hard to see a liver tumor compared to the normal liver on a CT scan, but you can see it very well defined on the MRI,” she said.

Dr. Arya Kumar directs this stereotactic body radiation therapy program at the VA.

He describes it as high dose, very focused radiation.

“Because it’s so precise. We don’t have to increase the margin radiator a whole larger field. We could just target a very small area and spare the patient a lot of side effects,” he said.

He’s excited that patients’ normal tissues will be spared, and they won’t be introduced to any more toxicity than they need to be.

“You have to remember these patients are veterans who have had prior exposures through their military service. They’ve had, sometimes, a lot of other medical issues as well. Their baseline health may not be the best. So, we have to manage all of that and also try and get them through a cancer treatment,” he said.

Dr. Kumar says they also now have the ability to monitor the tumor in real time during the roughly 40-minute radiation sessions.

“If the cancer moves because the patient’s breathing differently now, we can adapt the radiation to map out where the cancer actually is now and still be very focused on where the where the radiation is going,” said Dr. Kumar.

The View Ray is one of the first in Ohio and the first within the VA system, according to Dr. Khan, who is excited about the volume of patients they’ll be able to help with this new treatment protocol.

“We think based on our numbers probably about 20 to 25% of the patients that we see maybe may be candidates for this treatment,” she said.

Dr. Kumar says it’s too early to assess any improvement in outcomes, but it’s already improving patients’ quality of life.

“With SBRT treatments on our standard radiation machine we would have to do seven eight or 15 treatments. With the new Guided radiation, we’re able to deliver that in five treatments saving the patient over 50% of their visits to the medical center,” he said.

Rick’s results rival surgery, when surgery wasn’t an option.

“Tumor has been shrinking and no other area in the lung has been affected. No new cancer,” he said.

He is encouraging his fellow veterans not to ignore symptoms or put off treatment.

“Don’t wear blinders. I was hard headed for a long time and my wife finally got me to come around,” said Wehe.