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Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. In 2009, more than 37,000 people were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The pancreas helps digest food and produces hormones that keep blood sugar levels in check. When abnormal cells grow in the pancreas, a tumor can develop. The symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be vague, but may include weight loss, fatigue, pain in the stomach or back, and yellowing of the skin and eyes. As a result, pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose early and treat effectively.
Treating Pancreatic Cancer with CyberKnife® Radiation
Surgical resection remains the treatment of choice if possible. Unfortunately, many pancreatic cancers are impossible to remove surgically, due to involvement of nearby lymph nodes or blood vessels. Chemotherapy combined with conventional radiation has been the preferred treatment for those unable to undergo surgery. Conventional radiation is hard to deliver directly to these tumors because they are moving targets, meaning the tumors move as you breathe. Surrounding healthy tissue often receives unnecessary doses of radiation in these procedures, resulting in significant side effects.
CyberKnife offers an effective alternative. It uses computers and imaging tools to find the exact location of the tumor. It also works alongside the Synchrony® Respiratory Tracking System, which tracks the movement of the tumor as a patient breathes during a session. These tools allow doctors to focus radiation on the tumor - and not on surrounding healthy tissue. While CyberKnife does not necessarily cure pancreatic cancer, it helps to reduce the pain and complications generally associated with the disease.
Preparing for CyberKnife Treatment
Your team of trained specialists at Saint Francis will help you understand every step of CyberKnife treatment.
Before you have CyberKnife treatment, you will need:
- Fiducials – Fiducials are tiny gold seeds that guide the CyberKnife tools to the exact location of your pancreatic tumor. In preparation for your CyberKnife treatment, the doctor will implant about three to five rice-sized fiducials into your pancreatic tumor during an outpatient procedure using a CT scan for guidance.
- Three to five fiducials are placed using needles guided by CT scan.
- Patients should be able to return home within an hour or two following the procedure.
- Do not eat or drink 8 hours before the fiducial placement procedure. You may take your normal medications that morning with a small sip of water.
- Since patients may receive intravenous sedation, arrangements should be made to have someone drive you home that day.
- Custom body mold – This mold is formed to your body to lie on, and will help you feel more comfortable during any pre-treatment imaging procedures, as well as during the CyberKnife procedure. It also keeps your body from moving too much so that procedures will be as precise as possible.
- Synchrony vest – This comfortable vest works along with the Synchrony Respiratory Tracking System. It contains light-emitting diodes which allow the CyberKnife to follow the position of your tumor even as you breathe. This helps make sure that only your tumor receives radiation beams, and not any surrounding healthy tissue.
- Imaging – You will need to have a computed tomography (CT) scan, which creates a detailed picture of your tumor using computers and X-rays. The CT scan will give the CyberKnife the information it needs to pinpoint the exact size, shape and location of your tumor.
During CyberKnife Treatment
- Before the treatment, our team will help you put on your custom body mold and Synchrony vest. During the treatment, all you will have to do is lie still on a table. The CyberKnife robot will move around your body delivering radiation beams to your tumor.
- You should not feel any discomfort, and nothing will touch you directly. During treatment, you can even watch a movie on the flat screen TV on the ceiling!
- Each treatment takes 1 to 1 ½ hours.
- You are generally free to return to your regular schedule following the procedure.
After CyberKnife Treatment
- Most pancreatic cancer patients will receive three to five CyberKnife treatments over the course of one week.
- After treatment, you should be able to return to your normal daily activities.
- Many patients experience no side effects. Some patients feel nauseous and in rare cases vomit for a few hours after each treatment. Other possible side effects include bowel irritation, diarrhea, and fatigue. Most side effects resolve within a few weeks.
- If you are concerned about any symptoms you may experience, contact your CyberKnife physician or nurse.
- Patients are seen for a follow-up evaluation 4-6 weeks after treatment, then every 3-6 months afterwards. Often, CT or PET scans may be ordered to evaluate the response to the CyberKnife treatment. Many cancers will continue to show a response for up to 3-6 months after treatment.