A Target on Cancer

How a precision treatment makes life easier on patients.

Illustration by Daniel Fishel.
Illustration by Daniel Fishel.

Mark Rodziczak took the kind of blow last year that knocks men off their feet: a diagnosis of prostate cancer. So these days, the 61-year-old Delafield resident knows far more than he’d like about cancer treatments.

Rodziczak and his wife, Malea, have been married 41 years. They have three daughters and seven grandchildren, and with the promise of so many future family gatherings to come, Mark dove right into treatment.

Over eight weeks, he endured 38 radiation treatments, but his last batch was different. Those featured the TrueBeam linear accelerator at Wheaton Franciscan-Elmbrook Memorial, which the hospital introduced in early December. The change in experiences was palpable.

Yes, TrueBeam is still radiation treatment. But the multimillion-dollar setup delivers a more comfortable environment and reduced treatment times, all while pinpointing tumors more precisely and saving more healthy tissue than less-advanced treatments. For Rodziczak, his TrueBeam treatments lasted but a fraction as long as his previous ones, which took 20 to 30 minutes each.

“Once the machine is actually on, it’s probably five minutes,” Rodziczak says of his TrueBeam experience. “It hit six different spots in my case. Then it was done, and I was on my way to work. I actually worked right after I was done.”

TrueBeam isn’t a solution for everyone, but for those needing radiation treatment, it improves upon older procedures by orders of magnitude. Dr. Shannon Offerman, a radiation oncologist for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, can’t say enough about the new technology. “I knew it would be better than what we had,” she says, “but I never anticipated how good it would be.”

Different cancers require different ranges of treatment times, but TrueBeam’s accuracy allows for higher doses to be delivered at faster rates, thus truncating treatments.

“First of all, we’re not missing,” Offerman says, a nod to the device’s superior accuracy. “Traditionally, we put large margins on areas we treat so that we don’t miss. But now, we don’t have to.” It saves healthy tissue that past treatments would have nicked.
Offerman also appreciates how the new machine is designed with patient comfort in mind. Patients lie down on a platform that’s extended away from its lone support leg. This allows the business end of the apparatus, which resembles something like a giant-sized hybrid between a camera and a microscope, the freedom to get at the cancer from any angle necessary.

“When they turn it on, it kind of rotates around your body,” Rodziczak says. TrueBeam runs smoothly and quietly, and two-way audio and video allows for uninterrupted communication between patient and therapist, while soft music can be played in the background.

TrueBeam’s advanced technology has opened up new possibilities when treating more challenging cancers in the head and neck, as well as the lungs, abdomen and breasts, to name a few examples. And it’s now becoming widely available.

Varian, maker of TrueBeam, introduced the device in April 2010, integrating advances in radiation oncology technology, such as beam shaping and image guidance, that had been delivered piecemeal to previous systems. Aurora-St. Luke’s had the first one in Milwaukee in 2011, but it took time for TrueBeam to become established in the area.

“I remember the first time hearing about it, and I thought, ‘How much better can this really be?’” Offerman says. “Part of a scientist’s nature is to be skeptical and have good proof that something is better. We were giving excellent treatments here before. But there was maybe 50 percent less radiation exposure on other organs compared to our best old treatment. It was really surprising to me.”

Varian recently shipped its 1,000th TrueBeam unit, indicative of its growing popularity. Aurora has expanded its Milwaukee-area TrueBeam treatments with three more units since 2013, and Wheaton Franciscan’s adoption gives the technology an even larger local footprint.

Meanwhile, Rodziczak continues to make progress. He’s working full time, has energy and is eating fine. He’ll find out this month whether the cancer is completely gone, and he speaks positively of his TrueBeam experience.

“My mind was pretty much at ease with the new equipment,” he says. And he hopes that’s the last time he needs it.

‘A Target on Cancer’ appears in the March, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Click here to subscribeor purchase a copy on newsstands at one of 400+ locations throughout Wisconsin.