Gamma Knife treats brain tumors without surgery

IP News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.: Doctors scanned Roxanna Meyers' brain a year and a half ago and found the same type of tumor her mother had about 30 years before.

Meyers' mother had brain surgery to remove a much larger tumor, requiring a shaved head and a long stretch in the hospital.

"She's never been quite the same,'' says Meyers, president of Century Sign Builders in Albuquerque. ``It just really altered her personality.''

Meyers' tumor was treated on a Thursday in May. She left with a full head of hair and was back at work the following Monday.

The difference is the Gamma Knife, technology that delivers highly focused radiation to damaged brain tissue in a single day's outpatient treatment. The technology has been in the state for almost six years, offering what doctors call a remarkable treatment to more than 700 New Mexico residents, most with tumors.

For many years, says Dr. Andrew Metzger, a neurosurgeon and the state's Gamma Knife medical director, traditional surgery was the accepted way to treat many tumors.

These surgeries could be risky, and although neurosurgeons learned to improve the technique of removing difficult tumors, even through the base of the skull, Metzger says the patients ``didn't fare very well'' after the procedures and had weeks of recovery in store. Gamma Knife patients tend to be in and out in one day, usually a Thursday. They are told to take off work Friday and are generally able to return to normal the following week. Other non-surgical treatments, the most common form of which is full-brain radiation, have heavy costs.

Full-brain radiation can last weeks, with multiple exposures, Metzger says, and can cause hair loss, sunburns on the scalp and even cognitive problems. Gamma Knife patients typically have none of these.

Gamma Knife centers throughout the world treated almost 450,000 people at 257 sites between 1991 and 2007, according to a report from Elekta, the device's maker. Before 2003, when the only Gamma Knife center in New Mexico opened at Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, patients had to travel to Arizona or Texas to receive the treatment.

"I like to think it's had a very positive impact on giving people options they didn't have before,'' Metzger says. ``It means being able to offer people a treatment that has some advantages over the alternative.''

Dr. Bob Hoppman, manager of the Gamma Knife Center New Mexico, says the machine has 201 cobalt-60 radiation sources that can be directed with extreme precision at targets inside the brain.

On the day of her procedure in late June, doctors gave Doni Carpenter, 78, four hefty shots of numbing medication, then screwed on pins for the boxlike metal frame used to keep her head immobile.

Carpenter then sat for a brain scan, which her doctors including Metzger used to plan her Gamma Knife treatment.

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