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Essentia's new accelerator for cancer treatment offers greater precision, fewer side effects

By Patrick Springer on Sep 16, 2014 at 10:08 p.m.


FARGO – Cheryl Swenson is nearing the end of 30 appointments with a machine that bombards her body with precise beams of radiation.

The $4 million machine, a linear accelerator, was recently installed at Essentia Health Cancer Center.

The new accelerator, which replaced an older model, offers distinct advantages, including greater precision and the ability to deliver higher doses of radiation.

For the patient, that means shorter treatments, often fewer treatments – and, because of its greater precision, fewer side effects.

Less advanced accelerators require patients to lie still for up to half an hour or 45 minutes five times a week for up to seven weeks.

The new machine can deliver the same amount of radiation in a fraction of the time, as few as five minutes, enabling patients to make fewer trips to the clinic.

“Once it gets going, it’s pretty quick,” said Swenson, a great-grandmother who lives in Ulen, Minn.

When the accelerator beams radiation, she is alone in the room, which has 3-foot thick walls of concrete and steel to contain the radiation.

“It’s pretty quiet,” Swenson said. She listens to music and thinks of errands to run following her treatment.

After a checkup last June, a mammogram detected cancerous lumps in her breast, requiring radiation treatments but no chemotherapy.

The radiation beam can be aimed at precise locations along a 360-degree arc, sparing healthy organs and tissues, including the spinal cord and eyes, which can easily be damaged by radiation exposure, said Brie Corfman, director of the Essentia Health Cancer Center.

Because of the shorter “beam times” enabled by the new accelerator, patients are less likely to move during treatments, said David Lauinger, a radiation therapy technician.

Swenson’s husband, Gus, was treated this spring for prostate cancer using the older accelerator, which required treatment times of 20 to 30 minutes.

“That’s kind of hard to do for a patient that’s not feeling well,” Lauinger said, referring to having to hold still for long periods.

The images from the new accelerator are clearer, enabling easier monitoring and targeting, he said.

Because of its high-dose capability, the new accelerator is able to treat twice as many patients in a day, and has more advanced capabilities.

“Five years ago, we couldn’t do what we do now,” said James Withnell, a dosimetrist, who said it takes much less time to calculate radiation dosages.

As she nears completion of her radiation treatments, Swenson finds that she has just begun to feel fatigue.

“You get a little tired,” she said, adding that she had a few minor bouts of nausea but overall feels normal.

She won’t learn how the tumors responded to the treatments until after they have been completed, common in breast cancer cases, Lauinger said.

“So far, so good,” Swenson said.