TAMPA, Fla. — Cancer was the second leading cause of death in the United States in 2020. But now, new technology is helping track tumors in real-time and release radiation with exact precision, even as tumors move inside the body.
"That's when I went into a diabetic coma one morning. My pancreas was overproducing insulin and couldn't wake up," explained Richard Wright, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer in 1999.
But over 20 years later, he's in pretty good shape and still even plays golf.
"I think I've been in the right place at the right time and had someone looking over me," he said with a smile.
Along with that guardian angel, Wright now has help from a new technology called MRI Linac.
"So this technology is a combination of an MRI scanner and a traditional Linear Accelerator, one that allows us to see where the tumor is in real-time and where normal anatomy is in real-time," explained Dr. Stephen Rosenberg, the MRI Director at Moffitt Cancer Center.
Rosenberg began the MRI Linac Program back in 2019. He says this MRI Guided Adaptive Radiation Therapy allows the computer to track any tumor as it moves inside the body.
"This is a tumor in the abdomen. You can see the tumor outlined in red," he explained as he pointed to the monitor that showed Wright's tumor.
The procedure takes an entire team, including Wright himself, as he uses goggles to see what's going on inside his body.
He compares it to playing a video game.
"That's the key thing about this; you control what they're doing and how fast you can do it. It's actually kind of fun," he said with a little laugh.
As Wright breathes, the monitor shows the tumor moving, which is very normal.
Before the MRI Linac was developed, it was challenging to keep the radiation beams focused on the tumor. So a much larger area had to be treated.
"By tracking the tumor and only turning the treatment on when the tumor is in the exact right position, we hope we can decrease side effects and be more precise in our treatment for patients," Rosenberg explained.
The team is in constant contact with Wright throughout his procedure.
"We coach patients through different breathing maneuvers to move the tumor into the right position," Rosenberg said.
"Take a breath and then hold," instructed another member of Moffitt's team.
Rosenberg says the technology has proved to be incredibly precise.
"The software will pick up where the tumor is, and actually, we'll be tracking the motion of the tumor. The radiation is not turned on until the tumor falls into what's called a 'gating structure,' a very small structure that we can tell the tumors in the right position. Then the radiation beam turns on. As soon as it's out of the side of that gating structure, the radiation turns off," he said.
Wright actually enjoys playing his part.
"Watching when the radiation's coming, make sure I get the target in the right spot. It's a game to me. It's kind of fun in a way," Wright said.
In the past, every patient was given the same radiation plan.
But now, with this new advancement, each patient has a personalized treatment plan.
"We can change the dose of the tumor to the normal organs based on the anatomy of the day, tumor changes. So it's all about personalizing the experience for patients to make sure we're getting the most optimal treatment that we can," Rosenberg explained.
At 70 years old, Wright says he still has a lot more life to live, and he believes his daily prayers and great optimism will help make that happen.
"Being announced with the 'Big C' is devastating to people. I mean, people right away go, 'Oh my God! I'm gonna die!' You got to be positive. You got to think you're going to beat this. And I have," Wright said with a smile.
Moffitt Cancer Center has treated close to 500 patients so far with the MRI Linac Technology. The center has one of the largest, fastest-growing programs in the world.
For more information on the MRI Linac, click here.