Throat cancer treatment seeks to limit radical side effects
August 4, 1996
Web posted at: 12:20 p.m. EDT
From Correspondent Dan Rutz
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Gerry Engeholm's teaching career was on the
line that day six years ago when he learned he had cancer
near the back of his tongue. He got the word by phone, and
recalls that the doctor pulled no punches.
"And he said, 'we'll probably have to cut some of your tongue
out and remove your voice box,'" Engeholm recalls. "'... and
we have to do this right away.'"
The results would mean serious problems speaking and eating.
As blunt as it sounds, the doctor was laying down a standard
treatment plan for cancers like Engeholm's. But this patient
got a second opinion and another option from Dr. Louis
Harrison at New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer
Harrison's alternative treatment uses extremely localized
high doses of radiation, and appears to be as effective as
surgery -- with far fewer side effects.
The six-month treatment plan preserves both tongue and
larynx. Only the cancerous lymph nodes are removed. The rest
of the cancer is treated with chemotherapy and radiation,
first from the outside, and then from the inside by
radioactive beads threaded through spaghetti-thin tubes.
The tubes are in place for about a week. It looks brutal, but
it's temporary compared to losing the tongue and larynx
forever in the standard operation.
"Here's a patient who has two options that would have
probably given him the same rate of cure," Harrison says,
"but the difference in quality of life from one option versus
the other is so dramatically different."
Engeholm is among the 80 percent of patients who are free of
cancer five years later. The cure rate is about the same for
radical surgery. And while the surgical process is much
shorter, it comes with a greater sacrifice.
"What would it have been like without a voice," muses
Engeholm. "What would it have been not being able to eat
Such questions have helped bring about new priorities in
cancer treatments -- saving lives without ruining them.
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