Thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians and Greeks used heat to destroy cancerous tumors. Hyperthermia therapy, or the use of heat in medical treatment, is still a formidable weapon in today’s fight against cancer. This age-old method of fighting cancer is now giving hope to thousands of people with hard-to-treat cancers due to dramatic advances in heat generation and computer science.
How does hyperthermia work? For tumors close to the skin’s surface, an external device similar to a heating pad supplies heat. For all others, as many as 20 tiny hollow tubes are surgically implanted in the tumor, where they remain for the duration of the treatment—usually two to five days. A slender, high-tech thermometer is inserted in a number of the tubes to allow precise temperature monitoring during the treatment. Next, small wires—miniature microwave antennae—are inserted and energized to heat the tumor to 108 to 110 degrees for up to an hour. The treatments, which are virtually painless, are always preceded or followed by radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.
“Hyperthermia increases the effect of radiation and chemotherapy in the killing of cancer cells, typically with little effect on normal tissue,” says Nisar Syed, M.D., medical director of radiation oncology at the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. Dr. Syed is an internationally acknowledged expert on hyperthermia therapy, and Long Beach Memorial is one of only a few medical centers in the country staffed and equipped to offer this type of treatment.
Texina Herrera knows first-hand the effectiveness of hyperthermia. At 55, the Long Beach resident was diagnosed with neck cancer that didn’t respond satisfactorily to traditional treatment, so Dr. Syed suggested hyperthermia. The addition of targeted heat to Texina’s treatment regimen helped her program of radiation (brachytherapy treatment—the implantation of radioactive seeds in the diseased portion of her neck) and chemotherapy work more effectively. “My treatment at Long Beach Memorial was great,” says Texina. “I’ve been cancer-free for more than 14 years.”
Certain cancer cells can become resistant to conventional therapy when they become oxygen-starved or acidic, due to poor blood supply. Other times, resistance occurs when tumor cells are in a particular phase of cellular division. And, as it turns out, it’s exactly at these times that cancer cells are most vulnerable to high temperatures.
Recent studies show radiation therapy combined with hyperthermia increases the five-year, relapse-free survival rates for patients with recurrent or locally advanced cancers from 28 percent to 46 percent, as compared to radiation therapy alone. It also boosts the five-year response rate for recurrent breast cancer from 41 percent to 59 percent, the two-year survival rate for brain cancer from 15 percent to 31 percent, and the three-year survival for advanced cervical cancer from 57 percent to 83 percent.
“Hyperthermia and brachytherapy are important tools in the fight against cancer,” says Robert Nagourney, M.D., medical director of the Todd Cancer Institute. ”Hyperthermia is especially helpful for patients who do not respond to conventional treatments. We are improving the quality of life for hundreds of patients with difficult to treat cancers.”