The cancer treatment contraption of Milledgeville
Trish Fordham laid under what appeared to be a large shiny sapphire blue coffee maker with many buttons on it making a very loud, unpleasant noise. A beam came down to administer a special mix of medication to her, because she has cancer. She laid flat on a silvery steel table with a stark white sheet covering her to protect the rest of her body.
While not the most glamorous scene, the Varian IX Linear Accelerator at the Cancer Treatment Center located beside the Oconee Regional Medical Center, helps save lives with its external beam radiation therapy.
“These linear accelerators, which use the newest man made type of radiation, it will deliver two different energies,” Dr. H.L. Tripp Simpson, radiation oncologist, said. “They’ll deliver their maximum dose to about a centimeter and a half to almost three centimeters, so they spare the skin a lot better and does a real good job of treating deep seated tumors.”
The radiation treatment is directed to a small area, so healing can be done to a specific part of the body. Cancer cells will begin to break down and healthy cells will begin to reproduce, making radiation therapy and a contraption like the linear accelerator more powerful.
“The radiation effects the DNA in the cells. When damage is done to healthy cells, they’ll start dividing very rapidly to repair the damage done to them,” Ann Collins, radiation therapist, said. “The radiation eventually breaks down the DNA and the diseased cells where they don’t know how to divide again.”
The linear accelerator is a common machine used for radiation therapy, but there is only one in Milledgeville. This makes keeping it in good condition important, so those people close to Milledgeville can get their treatment near home since radiation therapy is almost a daily process.
“It’s the only one here in Milledgeville,” Kelley Lunsford, medical dosimetrist, said. “Otherwise patients would have to travel to Augusta or Macon, so it’s nice that we have Dr. Simpson here and the radiation machine. This way patients don’t have to drive so far, because it’s an everyday treatment for six to seven weeks.”
The reason why there is only one linear accelerator in Milledgeville is because in the state of Georgia hospitals have to show what they need the machine for and get approval, so there aren’t too many of the machine in one area.
“There are applications that have to be filled out,” Pam Pinkstaff, radiation therapist, said. “You couldn’t purchase a machine and open up another shop on the corner. You have to prove the area you would serve. In this state you can’t just pop up a radiation center just anywhere, it’s governed so there aren’t too many.”
Patients are not only from the Milledgeville area, they also travel from the surrounding counties.
“We do see some patients from Jones County,” Dr. Simpson said. “Patients from Haddock will come here. We see a lot of patients from Hancock and from Sandersville.”
While the linear accelerator is great for cancer patients, having radiation therapy with this contraption can cause side effects.
According to National Cancer Institute, some common side effects of the linear accelerator and the radiation it administers are diarrhea, hair loss to the area being treated, mouth problems, nausea and vomiting, sexual changes, swelling, trouble swallowing and urinary and bladder changes.
“It depends on the area of the body you are treating to what side effects you will have,” Jeanna Montgomery, radiation nurse, said. “All of them have the potential to have skin side effects, but depending on where you treat them depends on the side effects, because the radiation only affects the area we are treating.”
It is very important to know how to operate a machine such as the linear accelerator properly and going to school is the only option for learning how to adequately use this machine on people daily. Not knowing how to operate it appropriately could lead to a patient getting hurt, so acquiring an education geared towards radiation therapy is critical.
“More and more training is expected of a therapist,” Melissa Sauer, medical physicist and manager, said. “You need an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. A dosimetrist needs a bachelor’s degree and a physicist needs a master’s degree or a PhD.”
A cancer patient can’t simply walk in and get treatment done with the linear accelerator. The radiation used is unique to each person.
“Dr. Simpson writes a prescription for a prescribed dose depending on what the cancer is,” Lunsford said. “Not every cancer gets the same dose, so I do a scan on the patient. I keep up with the doses we are at, so we aren’t doing the patient more harm.”
Since the linear accelerator focuses on a specific area of the body, it is easier to direct radiation to the places that need the treatment and not the entire body.
“Because it’s so precise, we can take the patient to a little higher dose, whereas before when we didn’t have this type of technology, we were treating a bigger area which caused a lot more side effects,” Lunsford said. “Over the years it’s become very precise and the kind of technology we have today that our machine is capable of.”
Cancer is a very devastating disease for a person and a family to face, but the staff at the Cancer Treatment Center are dedicated and passionate about curing cancer. They see lots of patients on a daily basis.
“We treat approximately 20 patients a day,” Dr. Simpson said. “We are seeing patients all the time in follow-up and seeing new patients. I’d say 20 to 30 patients a day, counting everybody that comes in and probably 200 to 300 new patients a year.”
Trish Fordham developed breast cancer earlier this year and is now receiving her radiation therapy with the linear accelerator. She said she gets her radiation treatment done in Macon, but goes through a similar procedure as what is done at the Cancer Treatment Center in Milledgeville.
“It rotates around you and it’s not claustrophobic, or anything like that. I’m really only in there for 10 minutes,” Fordham said. “Different parts of the machine moves around me.”
There is a mix of women and men that come into the Cancer Treatment Center to be treated with radiation therapy from the linear accelerator. They go through a procedure similar to Fordham’s.
“I’d say it is equal, because men usually have prostate cancer and women have breast cancer, but some breast cancer patients are men,” Dr. Simpson said.
The center has even treated children, but it isn’t very common. The linear accelerator machine is used to dispense radiation to almost anyone.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health report done for 2016, cancer is the third most common death for children. Sixty cancer deaths are expected to happen each year in Georgia among children.
“We do get children, but usually when it’s a small child we prefer them to be treated at a tertiary care center, where they have pediatric anesthesia, pediatric nurses and they are all prepared to treat children,” Dr. Simpson said.
The linear accelerator is used to treat many different forms of cancer. While some forms of cancer are more common than others, the machine is designed for more than just the typical forms of cancer.
“Breast, prostate, some lung cancer and lymphoma,” Dr. Simpson said. “We also treat a lot of rectal cancer, but not a lot of colon cancer, because that’s typically done with chemotherapy.”
While the Oconee Regional Medical Hospital does gain revenue from the benefits of the machine, it is used for the greater good of the community and to help cure patients.
“The hospital does the billing, but our concern in this building working with this machine is the community we serve, more so than the financial aspect of it,” Pinkstaff said. “I’m sure that’s a factor, but that’s not the factor for us here.”
Dr. Simpson said he is always looking to cure his patients and that is his ultimate goal. The staff at the Cancer Treatment Center want to use the linear accelerator to help as many people in Milledgeville as they can as they go through their cancer treatment process with radiation therapy.
For more information on the Cancer Treatment Center and the Varian IX Linear Accelerator, please contact the center at 478–454–3805.
“Some of the patients we are seeing is to help cure the disease,” Dr. Simpson said. “That’s our goal, to cure.”