Alaskans now have in-state access to what oncology doctors describe as a “real game changer” in the battle against various cancers – particularly colon, lung and prostate cancers.
“It is a way to very precisely treat tumors and avoid surgery in a lot of situations,” said Dr. William Magnuson of the Alaska CyberKnife Center based at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. “With CyberKnife, patients get the benefit of very-focused, high-powered radiation therapy that destroys all of the cancer cells within the tumor all the while avoiding the side effects that come with surgery in traditional treatment.”
The pinpoint accuracy of the CyberKnife allows for higher doses of radiation to be delivered as compared to other forms of radiation treatment.
Alaska has the most current version of the CyberKnife, Magnuson said.
Magnuson, a board certified radiation oncologist, joined the Anchorage Associates in Radiation Medicine in July 2016. Prior to that, he was trained at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, on the exact same model of the CyberKnife as is installed in Anchorage. While at Yale, Magnuson performed more than 300 radiosurgeries.
Magnuson, who was born and raised in Anchorage, is clearly pleased that he is now able to bring the same level of cancer care to his fellow Alaskans as is available on the East Coast where much of the country’s advanced medical facilities are located.
“By being able to go and train under some of the best and brightest people in the country to learn how to safely and effectively deliver radiation treatment with the CyberKnife and to bring those cutting edge techniques that I learned there and the experience and knowledge I gained there back here to Anchorage is humbling and exciting,” Magnuson said. “People receiving treatment here in Anchorage are getting the exact same treatments as those at Yale.”
The ability for Alaskan patients using CyberKnife to forgo what used to be mandatory travel to the Lower 48 for advanced cancer treatment is another benefit Magnuson believes is important to treatment success.|
“They can now stay here with their family and friends. They can receive treatment where their full support network is instead of having to deal with the expense of travel and undergo treatment in an unfamiliar location without the support of those that are important in their lives,” Magnuson said.
It is hard to fully quantify the benefit of being close to one’s routine surroundings when receiving cancer radiation treatment, but Magnuson said he sees the positive impact the local CyberKnife has on his patients who have supportive family or friends in the waiting room.
“It truly makes a difference for the patient’s overall well-being to have trusted support,” he said.
On the technical side of CyberKnife’s value to Alaskan patients is its ability to track the movement of a tumor in real time.
For instance, lung cancers move up and down as a patient breathes. CyberKnife uses a gold marker to outline the margins of the tumor, thus allowing the technician to accurately follow the tumor as radiation treatment is applied.
The same concept holds true for prostate cancer in which the amount of gas or stool in the rectum can cause the prostate gland to move back and forth.
Because the technician administering radiation to treat prostate cancer has the ability to, as Magnuson explains, “know at all times during the treatment procedure where the prostate gland is located,” using CyberKnife’s capability to deliver higher radiation does to very specific cells significantly reduces the number of necessary treatments.
In most prostate cancer cases, Magnuson said only five treatments – as compared to upwards of 45 via more traditional radiation treatment methods – is necessary.
“It ends up being half the cost and much more convenient for the patient in terms of the duration of treatment,” Magnuson said.
Still, Magnuson concedes, it takes education for patients to grasp just what CyberKnife can do for them.
Ten years ago when Providence built its extensive cancer treatment center, Alaskans were highly conditioned to seek advanced treatments Outside.
“We still have patients that for whatever reason do believe they have to go to travel out of Alaska, but we are working hard to educate the community regarding the high quality level of physicians we have here as well as the latest in technological advances,” Magnuson said. “Yes, in some cases, patients do need Outside care, but the number of those cases continues to drop as the facilities and technology we have here increases. Our major push now is to educate the community and to get the word out regarding the opportunities that exist here.”
There remains one cancer for which the CyberKnife is not yet accepted as the best form of treatment and that is breast cancer.
It isn’t because the CyberKnife is unable to deliver high-level targeted radiation to specific cells in the breast, Magnuson said. It is more a matter of cosmetics post treatment.
Researchers continue to study ways to improve the cosmetic outcome when CyberKnife is used in breast cancer treatment, Magnuson said.
“We know that is can effectively control breast cancer, but we (researchers) are still studying its effects in terms of fibrous in the breast,” Magnuson said, adding that Lower 48 clinics currently are conducting extensive trials. “We hope that within three to five years we will have the answers we need to safely provide CyberKnife breast cancer treatment. But first researchers have to follow the outcomes for current trial patients for a number of years before definitive answers are available.”
According to the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services, of the 13,550 new cancers diagnosed in Alaskans between 2010 and 2014, breast cancer represented 15.6 percent – the highest amount per individual type of cancer. Knowing that rate of breast cancer is high among Alaskan women; Magnuson looks forward to when he can use CyberKnife to treat it as well.
In the meantime, Magnuson continues to educate patients regarding CyberKnife’s capabilities.
It does indeed represent a bit of paradigm shift.
“People hear cancer and they think it has to be cut out of their bodies,” he said. “In the past, that was indeed the only method of treatment, but that is not the case anymore.”
The other big advantage of CyberKnife: its application is pain-free.
“When patients here that they can receive treatment in a pain-free delivery and then go through that experience, it makes them believers in the system,” Magnuson said.
Learn more about Alaska CyberKnife online at: www.alaskacyberknife.com.