News Headline: Revolutionary Toronto cancer treatment gives asbestos victims new life
Outlet Full Name: The Star
Author: Marco Chown Oved
Like many people who were exposed to asbestos, it took more than 20 years before former Ontario Hydro mechanic Man Hong Chan knew anything was wrong.
When he started feeling short of breath during his weekly soccer matches, Chan went to the doctor and his worst fears were confirmed: he had mesothelioma, one of the most aggressive forms of lung cancer.
“It was scathing news. I was really scared,” he said. “Most people don’t even last two years.”
But thanks to a new therapy pioneered by a pair of Toronto doctors, 74-year-old Chan has been cancer free for more than four years.
The technique used by Dr. John Cho and Dr. Marc de Perrot at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre has doubled survival times in patients with mesothelioma, according to research they published last month. Their success has drawn attention from around the world and they say doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota will soon attempt to use their method.
Cho, a radiation oncologist, and de Perrot, a thoracic surgeon, paired up to turn conventional treatment on its head, giving patients radiation before surgery instead of after it. They’ve dubbed the technique SMART, for Surgery for Mesothelioma After Radiation Therapy, and Cho says three-year survival rates have more than doubled, from 32 per cent to 72 per cent.
And because the study only started five years ago, survival rates could be pushed further in the years to come.
Mesothelioma is caused when the microscopic fibres from asbestos are inhaled and act like needles, slowly working their way into the lining of the lungs over decades. What make the cancer so hard to treat, Cho says, is that some of those fibres and affected cells would escape during surgery and the cancer would spread anew.
Traditional treatment removes the affected lung and then treats the patient with radiation in hopes any lingering cancer will be killed. Cho and de Perrot’s program gives the patient a toxic dose of radiation before surgery, ensuring that any cancer cells left over afterward aren’t viable.
Even though asbestos was banned in the early 1980s, 500 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in Canada each year and the number is growing. Because of the 30-year gestation period, this rate isn’t expected to taper off for decades.
“The exposure has been reduced; it hasn’t been eradicated,” said de Perrot. “The asbestos is still around and it’s very likely that (incidence of) the disease will still increase.”
Even as the carcinogenic substance is being removed from buildings across the country, asbestos brake pads and cement pipes are still being imported into Canada.
Canada was long one of the world’s biggest producers of asbestos and continued to export it even after it was banned domestically. Quebec closed its last asbestos mines in 2011.
While mesothelioma has been seen by many to be a death sentence — average survival is only eight to 12 months — early intervention is granting patients a new lease on life.
The key to Cho and de Perrot’s treatment is moving quickly. While a patient typically waited six months for an intervention, Chan had already undergone radiation therapy and surgery within a month of his initial diagnosis.
“Our message to doctors and patients is to seek a referral early on. Don’t wait for additional screening. We can do the work quickly. Early work can make a difference,” said de Perrot.
In Chan’s case, since his surgery, he’s welcomed a new grandson into the world. And while he can’t play soccer like he used to, he’s still thankful.
“I’m lucky to have gotten rid of the cancer. You can’t ask for everything.”