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Upgraded Gamma Knife blasts brain cancer — it’s the most efficient, precise treatment available in Utah

Intermountain radiation oncologist Grant Hunter is pictured with Leksell Gamma Knife Icon machine at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Intermountain is the only facility in the state offering this specialized, high-accuracy, noninvasive and personalized brain, head and neck cancer treatment, which is considered the most accurate form of stereotactic radiosurgery available in the United States. The treatment uses precision-focused gamma rays or radiation from 192 sources angled onto a single point with an accuracy of less than one-tenth of a millimeter.
Intermountain radiation oncologist Dr. Grant Hunter is pictured with Leksell Gamma Knife Icon machine at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Intermountain is the only facility in the state offering this specialized, high-accuracy, noninvasive and personalized brain, head and neck cancer treatment, which is considered the most accurate form of stereotactic radiosurgery available in the United States. The treatment uses precision-focused gamma rays or radiation from 192 sources angled onto a single point with an accuracy of less than one-tenth of a millimeter.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

MURRAY — A frame that surrounds the head is screwed into the scalp before entering a truck-sized, radiation-emitting machine that will fire 192 gamma rays right into the brain.

The only reason a person would choose to undergo such a procedure would be to rid themselves of cancer — and that is what the Leksell Gamma Knife Icon system at Intermountain Medical Center does.

“It was the least invasive thing I’ve done for cancer, and I’ve done a lot,” said Amanda Peterson. She was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2013. A year of treatments, twice losing her hair, and a double-mastectomy later, she thought maybe she was done.

Intermountain radiation oncologist Grant Hunter and patient Amanda Peterson laugh as they talk about her Gamma Knife treatment for stage 4 brain cancer at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Intermountain is the only facility in the state offering this specialized, high-accuracy, noninvasive and personalized brain, head and neck cancer treatment, which is considered the most accurate form of stereotactic radiosurgery available in the United States. The treatment uses precision-focused gamma rays or radiation from 192 sources angled onto a single point with an accuracy of less than one-tenth of a millimeter.
Intermountain radiation oncologist Dr. Grant Hunter and patient Amanda Peterson laugh as they talk about her Gamma Knife treatment for stage 4 cancer at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Intermountain is the only facility in the state offering this specialized, high-accuracy, noninvasive and personalized brain, head and neck cancer treatment, which is considered the most accurate form of stereotactic radiosurgery available in the United States. The treatment uses precision-focused gamma rays or radiation from 192 sources angled onto a single point with an accuracy of less than one-tenth of a millimeter.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Two years after that, however, in 2015, the cancer had returned and spread to her liver and to her bones. Her body responded well to dose-dense chemotherapy and “everything was going great,” she said. From the neck down, her cancer was controlled.

Until doctors found a cluster of more than a dozen tumors that had metastasized to her brain.

“I always had hope that I could stretch out this life span,” said Peterson, 43. “When I found out it went to my brain, I thought, ‘This was it.’”

Turns out, though, Peterson’s circumstances perfectly qualified her for precision radiosurgery, using none other than the big gun, the Gamma Knife.

Intermountain Medical Center in Murray is the only facility in the state that offers the specialized, high-accuracy, noninvasive and personalized brain, head and neck cancer treatment option, which is considered the most accurate form of stereotactic radiosurgery available in the United States.

Dr. Grant Hunter, a radiation oncologist at Intermountain Medical Center, said it's the only machine of its capability in a multistate area, meaning people travel from all over to benefit from the state-of-the-art technology, which was just upgraded.

“It allows us to focus on a single spot, to specifically target cancer in the brain,” Hunter said, adding that gamma radiation is the most efficient and aggressive treatment available, as it is able to be delivered in a high dose, usually all at once.

Patients who use the Gamma Knife technology don’t experience the bothersome and uncomfortable side effects associated with radiation. “It’s painless,” Hunter said, noting patients also can’t feel or see it being delivered.

“It’s a noninvasive way to treat a very serious problem in a very aggressive way,” he said.

Hunter, who said he’s always been drawn to helping cancer patients, estimates more than 100 patients undergo the Gamma Knife at Intermountain Medical Center annually, with that number growing every year.

“They are the best patients,” he said. “They’re in a tender spot where they are emotionally and physically vulnerable, and when we are able to provide a service that is life-saving at times ... or add years of meaningful life, it is quite rewarding, to say the least.”

Other machines can perform similar treatments, just not in ways as precise or preferable for patients as the Gamma Knife is capable of, he said.

The “old-fashioned way,” or whole-brain radiation, Hunter said, can cause significant neuro-cognitive decline, resulting in memory loss and decreased quality of life.

The latest upgrade to the machine at Intermountain Medical Center allows patients to forego the cumbersome placement of the frame, or halo, that holds a patient’s head motionless inside the machine. Intermountain’s Gamma Knife now has an option for patients to use a customized plastic-mesh mask that contains a sensor to track any movement, giving doctors even more control over delivering a high dose of radiation to a very small target inside the brain.

As soon as a lesion is visible on an MRI scan (2 millimeters in size), it can be obliterated by the Gamma Knife. The time a patient spends inside the truck-sized machine, which is quiet throughout the procedure, depends on the size of the cancer.

It hardly ever destroys any tissue outside of the tumor, it’s that precise, Hunter said.

“I’m so grateful it’s here,” Peterson, who has undergone four Gamma Knife procedures so far, said. She went out to dinner the night of her first treatment in 2016. Her next MRI was clear.

“I was surprised at how well I felt,” she said. “And, it really worked.”

Peterson, of Holladay, discovered a mass in her breast while showering. She knew right away that it was cancer.

“Sure enough, it was the C-word. The biggest, the baddest, the worst-case scenario,” she said.

From that moment on, Peterson said she has had to focus on finding joy in every day, as “cancer colors everything that you do. It colors every interaction, what you do and what you don’t do ... it colors everything.”

“I’ve learned to let a lot of things go,” she said, adding that her greatest worry is how her cancer will affect her three children, ages 11, 14 and 17. She wants them to learn empathy, and acknowledge all that is being done to help their family during this time. She tries to make the most of every minute.

“I am literally living on borrowed time,” Peterson said.

Her oldest son is set to graduate high school in the spring, something she never thought she would be around to see, but thanks to more effective treatment, she may very well be. She is also fulfilling a lifelong wish of fostering kittens.

Peterson will remain in stage 4 cancer, an incurable diagnosis, but her outlook on life is more like that of someone who has more to do, more life to live.

“Cancer does what it wants,” she said. “Thankfully, mine was caught small enough that Gamma was an option. But, I would give it all back in a heartbeat.”