By Dawn Dorsey, Staff Writer
Cancer has been playing hide-and-seek with Patsy Lofton for 17 years, traveling from her breast to her lung, spine and brain.
Over the years she's tried many treatments, some more successful than others. Now, she's hoping a recent Gamma Knife radiosurgery procedure at M. D. Anderson will help slow the growth of the cancer in her brain.
Breast cancer began the saga
In 1992, Lofton, who lives in central Mississippi, was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy (surgical removal of the tumor and some of the surrounding tissue), radiation and chemotherapy and felt lucky she had caught the cancer before it spread.
But three years later, she began to have a pain in her back, just under her shoulder blade.
"I had a feeling the cancer was back," Lofton says. "But after you've had cancer, you think every little pain is cancer."
Cancer reappears in lung, spine
Unfortunately she was right; the cancer had reappeared in her lung. The tumor was surgically removed, and Lofton had two bone marrow transplants.
For nine years, she was free of cancer. Then it reared its head again, this time in her spine. Her radiologist referred her to M. D. Anderson.
"Since I was 50, still young the doctor said, he thought we might be able to just remove the two vertebrae where the cancer was," she says. "But to do that, we first had to treat the spine with radiation."
Surgeries take their toll
After the radiation, surgeons removed T3 and T4, two vertebrae in the middle of her back.
"It's been a pretty tough adjustment, and it still affects me," says Lofton, who's now 55. "I can't do very much, and my shoulders hurt a lot. Everything below and above the vertebrae that were removed has to work extra hard to compensate."
Before she was completely healed from the surgery, Lofton slipped and fell as she was leaving a restaurant. She broke her ankle and heel and was in a wheelchair for four months, requiring two surgeries.
Procedure hones in on tumor
Last year, a PET (positron emission tomography) scan revealed several small spots on Lofton's brain and lung. Doctors treated the spots on her brain with radiation, but 10 months later another PET scan revealed two new spots. That's when they decided to try Gamma Knife.
A Gamma Knife procedure is neither a knife nor surgery. It's a type of radiation treatment that delivers highly focused, high-intensity rays to a tumor with little damage to healthy tissue.
Gamma Knife causes little pain
Although the procedure might sound scary, Lofton explains it calmly. She says she felt only minor discomfort.
"They drilled two little holes in my skull: two in front and two in back," she explains. "Then they fitted a metal, locking mechanism called a halo on my head to keep it straight and still during the procedure. First they did an MRI, then the procedure, which lasted about 40 minutes."
Lofton was awake during the procedure, but she was lightly sedated.
"After they removed the halo, I had to sit for about an hour, and then I was dismissed," she says. "They asked me to stay in town overnight, and I went home the next day."
"The only side effect has been a little discomfort and two small knots where they drilled the holes to fit the halo."
Treatment continues for lung cancer
Lofton returns to M. D. Anderson every three months for MRIs of her brain, and the tumors seem to have stopped growing. She still receives chemotherapy for lung cancer, but she's able to do that at a facility about two hours from her home.
Recently, a small spot appeared on her liver.
"The doctor says that's the least of my worries," Lofton says. "But we're keeping an eye on it."
Battle influences her attitude
How does Lofton keep going? She attributes it in large part to family, including her husband of 30 years and a grandchild who lives a little over an hour away.
After fighting a formidable enemy for so many years, Lofton has developed a fairly easygoing attitude.
"I ask a lot of questions and learn what I can," she says. "But, in the end, the cancer's either going to come back or it's not."
Q&A: Gamma Knife® Radiosurgery for Brain Tumors
M. D. Anderson resources:
Division of Radiation Oncology
Detailed Guide: Brain/CNS Tumors in Adults (American Cancer Society)
Brain Tumor (National Cancer Institute)
Patient Information - North America (Elekta)