Radiation therapy is ‘constantly updated’

Dan Bezek (left), a radiation therapist, and radiation oncologists Dr. Subarna Hamid Eisaman and Dr. David F. Stefanik, are shown at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at John P. Murtha Regional Cancer Center in Johnstown on Sept. 15, 2017.

Leaders at hospitals and health systems across the region boast the latest technology – and the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at John P. Murtha Regional Cancer Center in Johnstown is no exception.

The 337 Somerset St. center is the region’s primary radiation technology center.

Almost every breast cancer patient who is treated with minimally invasive lumpectomy surgery has radiation therapy as a recommended follow-up.

The Murtha center’s $1 million linear accelerator was installed in 2015. The accelerator delivers a precise dose of radiation beam to a small area, carefully targeted by using positron emission tomography and computed tomography imaging, commonly known as PET scans and CT scans.

Radiation oncologists Drs. Subarna Hamid Eisaman and David F. Stefanik say their goal is to use the state-of-the-art technology to minimize side effects while maximizing the therapeutic effect.

“By definition, with radiation therapy, it’s a matter of doing radiation for the tissue that needs to be treated and trying to spare the other tissues,” Stefanik said. “That’s the basis of the treatment plan.”

By positioning the patient on the CT and PET scan tables using the same support used under the linear accelerator table, targeting can be set up with accuracy of 1 millimeter, said Dan Bezek, chief radiation therapist.

The result produces much lower side effects than radiation technology in the past, Johnstown breast surgeon Dr. Patti Ann Stefanick said. 

“The radiation is nothing like they remember from when their moms and grandmothers were treated,” Stefanick said at her 939 Menoher Blvd. office in Southmont.

Patients in Johnstown receive the same treatments available at any UMPC Hillman Cancer Center, including the flagship center adjacent to UPMC Shadyside in Pittsburgh, Eisaman said. All the centers follow Hillman Pathways, which are medical and radiation protocols based on the proven best practices for common forms of cancer.

“We are able to do the same treatment as the Pittsburgh sites,” Eisaman said. “We all follow the same evidence-based pathways. They are constantly updated as literature and studies come out.

“It helps place the patient into the category where they belong and deliver the best treatments that are available to that patient.”

UPMC’s main competitor, Allegheny Health Network, uses its best-practices initiative through the Allegheny Health Network Cancer Institute, including its Somerset Oncology Center, 314 S. Kimberly Ave. near Somerset Hospital.

The Somerset equipment is about to get major upgrade, the health network announced.

“AHN plans to replace Somerset’s linear accelerator, which delivers radiation to the patient, with a new state-of-the-art linear accelerator,” spokeswoman Stephanie Waite said. “We will also add a CT simulator, the most advanced imaging device for tumor localization and patient positioning, which will ensure the most accurate delivery of radiation treatment.

“In addition to enhanced accuracy, the upgrades are expected to decrease the patient’s average treatment time by about 30 percent.”

The upgrade, however, means that the Somerset center will close later this month and reopen in the spring, Waite said. 

Medical oncologists will continue to treat patients at the Kimberly Avenue office, and the radiation oncologists will be available.

“AHN is developing alternative plans, which have not yet been finalized, to treat patients at other locations,” Waite said. 

“We will communicate with patients to ensure a smooth transition of services.

“We look forward to continuing to serve the Somerset community with state-of-the-art radiation oncology.”

UPMC Altoona and Indiana Regional Medical Center also have radiation oncology units, located on each campus.

In addition to traditional radiation therapy with its linear accelerator, Indiana offers some breast cancer patients a shorter option. With brachytherapy, patients can complete the entire course of radiotherapy in five days.

The interior radiation treatment offered at at the Herbert L. Hanna Center for Oncology Care in Indiana involves radioactive pellets placed inside the breast for short periods. Pellets are inserted using a catheter, or small tube, placed by the breast surgeon during a lumpectomy procedure.

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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