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New St. Charles cancer treatment keeps patients close to home


Some Central Oregon cancer patients will no longer have to drive over the mountains to receive care. St. Charles Bend has expanded its radiation treatment services. This comes just five years after the hospital added a $13 million cancer center.

It’s a shift in the local medical community. St. Charles Health System plans to treat more cancer patients locally.

Radiation oncology specialist Dr. Nick Boehling is working with a team on implementing new technology to treat women with endometrial cancer in Central Oregon.

“So this is something that we’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and it was a matter of actually buying some of the equipment,” Boehling said recently.

The radiation treatment is called brachytherapy, and it has some advantages.

“External radiation passes through a substantial amount of a patient’s body,” Boehling said. “With this form of radiation, it’s very localized. In this case, it treats a patient after they’ve had endometrial cancer – uterine cancer.”

In endometrial cancer cases, oncologists treat what’s called the “vaginal cuff.” After a patient has a hysterectomy to remove her uterus and sometimes her surrounding sexual organs, the vaginal cuff is created by suturing together the edges of where the cervix was attached to the vagina.

By targeting the tumor site and vaginal cuff, doctors are able to limit radiation to the pelvis.

“There’s a shorter course of treatment, there’s less side effects on treatment, and patients tend to tolerate it fairly well,” Boehling said.

It typically takes five short treatments over a two-week period.

“Patients just lie on the table, the device is inserted into them, and once we verify the position, treatment can begin, and it takes maybe five minutes,” Boehling said.

In the past, the St. Charles Health System has had to send patients to the Valley, which can be a strain — especially because these patients tend to be in their 60s, 70s and 80s and often have a challenge financially as well.

“Patients might choose not to get treatment because of the challenge, so we feel like, you know, some patients aren’t getting all the treatment they need,” Boehling said. “We don’t want to think that logistically that just because we didn’t have the equipment, that patient is not getting proper cancer treatment.”

But that’s all changing.

“We’ve had a unit called a Xoft, which is a form of brachytherapy, and we finally bought the correct applicators — essentially, the devices that we use in the patient,” Boehling said.

Those applicators cost around $20,000. They’re looking into acquiring more applicators the hospital can invest in to treat other forms of cancer, such as breast or skin cancer.

So how does radiation therapy work?

“The radiation works by damaging the cancer cells’ DNA,” Boehling said. “Normal cells can typically recover from this damage that’s delivered from the X-ray radiation. The cancer cells are dysfunctional; therefore, they can die from the radiation itself. So by delivering enough radiation, you can kill off the cancer cells.”

NewsChannel 21 was told there’s minimal discomfort.

“In general, patients tolerate it,” Boehling said. “We fit them with a device that actually feels comfortable enough that you can fit adequately.

” Once the machine’s off, there’s no more exposure, patients aren’t radioactive, children can sit on them, there’s no concerns… patients just continue with their lives once treatment is done.”

After radiation therapy, doctors monitor for any long-term side effects, but Boehling said they don’t usually see them with this treatment.

“It’s nice to get treatment near home,” he said.

There’s a small risk of a second cancer caused by radiation therapy, but Boehling said the older population is less of a risk than with a child. He also said not every woman who has endometrial cancer will need additional treatment — it’s only the women at higher risk for the cancer to come back.

Another treatment option the hospital is using more often is called stereotactic radiation or SABR. It’s a high dose, small area form of radiation, which can spare normal tissue. It’s currently being used in Central Oregon for lung cancer, but can be applied to other organs — especially the brain.

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