April 3, 2006
How Radiofrequency Ablation Is Saving My Life
I find it so ironic that all my life I have worked with radio waves (I've been a radio broadcaster at a number of stations in the Houston area for years!), and now it's another type of radio waves that is actually saving my life!
With every great tragedy comes great opportunity. Being diagnosed with cancer turned my life upside down, and yet, I have been blessed more than ever before. If I could do one thing, it would be to offer this bit of medical advice to everyone: Get tested for cancer, especially if you have a family history of it. I had absolutely no symptoms at all, and as a result of a routine exam for a life insurance policy was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in 2002. Living in Houston was a blessing, with its huge medical community and several powerhouse cancer centers, and I was put on the fast track with radiation, aggressive chemotherapy and surgery. Cancer-free was only a six month period, and then cancer metastases appeared in my lungs and liver with a vengeance.
Being the eternal optimist by nature and a reporter by trade, I became a human search engine, looking for anything and everything that might be able to help my condition. I signed up for clinical trials, practiced good nutrition habits, attended every seminar I could (and with ten hospitals in the area, that's a lot!). I've followed at least five different chemotherapy protocols, some of them just emerging from FDA approval. Knowledge is power, and I am convinced that we are on the cusp of discovering the key to cancer---which of course will lead to preventing it in the first place.
After two full years of chemotherapy, I had made no progress. My oncologist sat down with me during a routine exam and told me resolutely that I had 10-14 months left. (In retrospect, he'd probably told me that a few times before, but I have no memory of it. Selective hearing does exist, I have learned). Only another cancer patient can understand the feeling of devastation, the shattering of hope.
The next day I went to visit a friend that been diagnosed a year after me to say good-bye. On his deathbed, he handed me a book with a wry smile saying he wouldn't need it where he was going. He died two days later, and in picking up the book, it opened to a page about a new technique for treating lung cancer called radiofrequency ablation (RFA). I had already investigated ablation in the past, but while it is considered a successful new treatment for cancer in the liver, no one uses it for lung cancer. Or so I had been told time and time again by different cancer centers, from Houston to Washington DC One thing led to another, and I eventually found myself consulting with the American Cancer Ablation Center in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
I have come to learn that no one does ablation in the lungs right now for two basic reasons. First, it requires cutting edge technology (which most major cancer centers do have) and physicians that are specifically trained in ablation (which are few and far between!). Secondly, while insurance does cover ablation of several different organs, the lungs are not included in normal protocol yet. People tell me I am like a pit bull. Once I'm on to something, it's hard for me to let go. I researched radiofrequency ablation, and it made sense. The problem with cancer tumors is that they grow, right? Kill them and they can't grow anymore. The whole premise behind RFA is to destroy the tumors...before they destroy you. Basically, the procedure involves inserting a specially designed needle through the chest wall directly into the tumor, using image guidance. The needle tip opens and encompasses the tumor, and radio waves are emitted, which in turn generate heat. The tumors are basically destroyed by the heat, and the patient is left with scar tissue where the tumor once was.
It sounds so simple, and being the suspicious reporter, I kept waiting for the catch. I'm still looking! The procedure was minimally invasive, and used only light sedation. After getting a PET CT scan which was used to pinpoint the location of the tumors, I spent about 4 hours one afternoon on the operating table for one side of my lungs, and about 3 hours the next day for the other. I went home each day with a few band-aids over the needle holes (rather like bad mosquito bites), and a bit queasy from the sedation. Two days later I drove back to Houston. All my tumors, save one (which is located too close to my heart to ablate) were dead. My CEA count dropped like a ton of bricks. A caveat here-radiofrequency ablation does not cure cancer. It merely destroys the effects that having cancer creates, namely tumors. I believe that cancer is in my genetic make-up, and am prepared to have tumors appear over the course of my (now much longer) lifetime. And I am also prepared to have them ablated as they appear. The beauty of RFA is that it is a tool to manage cancer, just like insulin helps manage diabetes. And since tumor size plays a part in RFA, I will have to be vigilant in keeping close watch on my cancer. In the end, it is each of us that play the greatest role in keeping our cancer at bay.
Radiofrequency ablation is an incredible tool for tumors in the lungs and liver, as well as several other organs. I have no doubt that it will be standard protocol very soon. But if very soon is not quite good enough for you, I encourage you to investigate on your own. Just make sure that you get information from the physicians that are making history now.
A broadcasting veteran for over 20 years, Cathy has been heard on many powerhouse radio stations in Houston. She is a college professor at, Alvin Community College, Alvin Texas. She has been selected for the 2006 National Cancer Survivors Day Speakers Bureau, and was recently presented with a Texas Media Award from the American Cancer Society for A Basic Guide to Cancer Etiquette. www.friendsofcathy.com