By the end of 1994, Karen Fry believed that she had fought and won her battle against breast cancer. Over the next 14 years, she maintained an active lifestyle and enjoyed generally good health. But in October 2008, a chronic pain in her back began to intensify and spread down her legs so that eventually it became too difficult to walk.
Tests revealed that as a remnant of her breast cancer, several metastatic tumors had appeared at the lower region of her spinal cord. Karen was treated with 14 sessions of conventional radiotherapy, but six months later, in April 2009, her back pains returned.
"I felt very low at that point," said Karen, 60, administrative manager for the Chemistry Department at a university in California. "I wasn't a candidate for chemo or surgery, and the radiotherapy I'd just received had only treated a part of one of the tumors. I needed something else to finish the job."
Karen's tumor had grown within a few millimeters of her spinal cord, bowel, and other sensitive tissues and organs, which could not be exposed again to radiation. Karen's local doctors referred her to a treatment center that had begun treating patients with radiosurgery, a more focused form of radiotherapy that involves delivering high doses over just a small number of treatment sessions. A radiotherapy machine, optimized to deliver these types of treatments, has sophisticated image-guidance tools that help doctors to determine the location of a patient's tumor in order to plan and deliver a precise treatment. Radiosurgery is a non-invasive form of therapy, which meant for Karen that her physicians would not be making any sort of cut or incision to treat her.
Karen's treatment was completed over a five-day period, in daily sessions that took about 20 minutes to complete, during which time she'd be listening, by request, to some of her favorite Roy Orbison tunes. "I felt well enough to continue working through the first four sessions," she said. "On the last day of treatment, which fell on a Saturday, I left the center and was able to go on with my weekend activities."
About a year after her treatment, Karen retired and moved with her husband to Paradise, California, where she is enjoying life in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. “I’m still doing fine; still extremely appreciative of the special care I received,” she said.
Varian would like to thank Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Palo Alto, CA for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this story.