Cancer Treatments Providing Hope for Millions
According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 1,735,350 people in the United States were diagnosed with cancer in 2018. While more than 600,000 may die from the disease, the number of cancer survivors is expected to increase to 20.3 million by 2026. With the many advancements in cancer detection and treatment options, patients have every reason to be optimistic.
Cancer treatment research is the key to improving patient outcomes. The institute says, “These efforts include the development of more effective and less toxic treatments, such as targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and cancer vaccines, as well as the improvement of therapies that have existed for decades, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.” One such radiation therapy improvement has been with thermoplastic mask ovens.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors by damaging their DNA. More than 50 percent of cancer patients receive radiation therapy. Because cancer cells can take months after radiation to finally die, most patients receive multiple doses of radiation as part of their treatment plan.
The amount and type of radiation depend on many things, including the type of cancer and its location. With External Beam Radiation Therapy, specialists target the radiation to treat only the area of the body that has the cancer cells. They must protect the rest of the patient’s body from the radiation as the high levels of radiation can kill healthy surrounding tissue as well as the cancer cells.
Protecting surrounding healthy tissue is critical because the human body can only receive a certain amount of radiation over its lifetime. Any tissue that is exposed to radiation, cancerous or healthy, may not be able to be treated again if the cancer cells are not killed off, they return, or they appear in previously healthy tissue. Therapists have to be extremely careful in where the radiation beam hits and take every precaution, as with the use of a thermoplastic mask, to protect surrounding tissue.
One of the things we have learned with radiation therapy is that the more targeted it is, the less peripheral damage is done and the better quality of life patients have. In order to ensure the most targeted, safest radiation therapy, specialists must immobilize and position the patient in a
Unlike the clumsy and inaccurate positioning techniques and tools of the past, radiation facilities use thermoplastic. Thermoplastic is a type of plastic that when heated to a certain temperature, becomes pliable for a certain amount of time before cooling into a hard substance. Therapists warm a thermoplastic sheet in a specialized thermoplastic mask oven or a heated water bath and then place it over the part of the patient’s body where the radiation will occur. Therapists shape the thermoplastic masks around the patient’s head and/or neck area and secure it to a base behind the patient.
The thermoplastic mask oven enables technicians to mold the plastic to perfectly fit the individual. The thermoplastic mask is not only more comfortable for the patient, but it effectively immobilizes and positions the patient to receive the most targeted, safest radiation therapy possible.
The Difference between Thermoplastic Mask Ovens and Water Baths
Depending on the facility, the therapist will warm the thermoplastic material in a thermoplastic mask oven or a heated water bath until it is moldable. Thermoplastic mask ovens offer dry-heat technology that may reduce the risk for contamination as the water bath system may harbor foreign materials, such as dangerous bacteria.
The dry thermoplastic mask oven is precise, programmable and easy to use. Unlike the water bath, the dry oven heats quickly and produces a moldable plastic in only minutes, without the need to dry the thermoplastic before use. This reduces the amount of effort and time required to create the patient’s mask and maximizes the patient’s comfort.
Many health care facilities are under increasing pressure to provide excellent patient care with fewer resources. Healthcare workers who take care of cancer patients have some of the highest burnout rates of any medical staff. In turn, studies find that burnout leads to dissatisfied patients, reduced patient care and increased workplace errors. This is particularly concerning given that radiation therapists are working with equipment that is capable of causing serious damage to already compromised patients. If therapists do not use the equipment properly and/or do not position the patient properly, radiation can cause far more harm than good.
According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, which surveyed a population of U.S. oncologists to assess occupational burnout, the primary factor influencing burnout was the number of hours spent doing direct patient care. Radiation therapists have the dominant role in delivering that care, putting them at high risk for burnout.
The more unnecessary tasks eliminated from a workflow, the more effective healthcare workers can be in delivering optimal patient care. A simple transition from thermoplastic water baths to thermoplastic masks ovens can reap significant benefits for radiation therapy facilities. Therapists spend less time preparing radiation masks, giving them more time to complete other tasks. Being that radiation therapists may see dozens of patients every day, shaving off several minutes per patient means the patients receive faster care and therapists have fewer tasks to complete with each patient.
The Future of Radiation Therapy
The future is bright for radiation therapy. It will be more customized to the patient and the type of cancer being treated. One size will not fit all and the patient will be put first, at least according to Imaging Technology News.
The number of radiation treatments is expected to decrease even while outcomes for certain cancers improve. In hypofractionated therapy, patients receive fewer treatments while still maintaining tumor control rates for breast cancer. The same cannot be said for cervical cancer, however. One study found four treatments were “significantly more effective” than only two treatments. Researchers are getting better at determining how many treatments are optimal for each type of cancer, giving patients hope for better outcomes and fewer long-term side effects.
Further, the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University are working together to reduce the side effects of radiation therapy “by vastly shrinking the length of a typical session.” This instant “zap” of radiation therapy reduces the risk of exposing healthy cells to the radiation. One blast of radiation, lasting milliseconds, causes less harm in the short and long term.
Not all treatment advances have to do with the number or duration of treatments. Some treatments will be combined in the near future for optimal results. For instance, as immunotherapy matures and becomes more commonplace, it will be combined with radiation therapy similarly to the chemotherapy/radiation protocol we are used to today.
These are but a few instances of radiation therapy advances, but they highlight the fact that therapy promises to become more effective with fewer side effects in the coming years.