A Singular Moment
When you receive a diagnosis of brain cancer it marks a singular point your life, after which you will never be the same. Whether the prognosis is good or bad, having had brain cancer becomes a part of your life forever. Many people still fear the word cancer because they can recall the gravity and importance of the word when it affected someone in their past. In the not-too-distant past the word cancer was something to be whispered as if saying it was tantamount to spreading it. When the diagnosis is revealed, an immediate set of assumptions are made based on years of hushed voices and sparse words.
A New Hope
The wonderful truth is that the word cancer today need not have the same connotation as it did 50 or even 25 years ago. Miraculous breakthroughs have been made and continue to be made in the treatment of various cancers, including brain cancer. In many cases the diagnosis is not always the harbinger of death that it once was. In many cases doctors speak in terms of survival rates rather than years or months to live. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are now used judiciously and with great effect.
Brain Cancer Surgery
One of the major questions in the treatment of brain cancer has always been, 'Is it operable?' Can the tumor be reached by surgical means or would the surgery itself risk too much brain damage as to be fruitless or even lethal? Tumors on the surface of the brain were usually easy to reach, the main consideration was to leave normal, healthy brain tissue undisturbed. Tumors deep within the brain or next to structures that control vital processes were usually off limits. Today, medical devices are reaching tumors that doctors though were impossible to reach surgically. With the advent of the Gamma Knife, the question of whether or not a tumor is operable is answered 'yes' much more often.
The trouble with using radiation to treat brain cancer and other cancer is that it requires very high doses to destroy tumors. Unfortunately the radiation cuts a path of destruction and healthy tissue around the tumor is destroyed along with the cancer. Brain tumors were especially difficult because radiation treatments would kill normal brain tissue and cause many neurological problems. The Gamma Knife looks much like a space helmet from some bad 1950s science fiction movie. It contains over 200 'gamma ray guns' positioned evenly around the helmet. Each of these sources can be focused on a tumor deep within the brain. By themselves, each 'gun' emits a relatively weak beam of radiation but when they are all focused on a tumor from different directions in space - Watch out! Tumors themselves receive large amounts of radiation when normal brain tissue sees very little. This technology has opened up a world of possibility for the treatment of brain cancer. Tumors that could never be touched by scalpel in a living patient are essentially cut away by the Gamma Knife.
While the diagnosis of brain cancer marks a way point in lives of those that receive it, new advances in chemotherapy, surgery and radiation mean that the words brain cancer need no longer be whispered over the kitchen table after telling the children to leave the room.
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