brain cancer patients keep their hair thanks to new radiation treatment
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Brain cancer patients keep their hair thanks to new radiation treatment

According to a study presented today in Denver at the 47th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology, new radiation techniques allow patients with brain cancer to escape the previously unavoidable hair loss. The new treatment allows patients to preserve quality of life while simultaneously controlling their cancer.

For most cancer patients whose disease has spread to the brain, whole brain radiotherapy is the first, best treatment option. Whole brain radiotherapy uses two radiation beams on each side of the head to target the tumor. Unfortunately, these radiation beams also kill hair follicles, causing patients to lose their hair. This hair loss coupled with the disease itself is often traumatic for patients, with negative psychological effects. To counteract these negative effects, doctors are experimenting with new types of radiation to see if other treatments can effectively treat cancer while preventing hair loss.

In the study released today, researchers worked with 10 patients with stage IV cancer that had spread to the brain. Doctors in the study improved upon the whole brain radiotherapy by using intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT allowed doctors to better target the cancer by controlling the intensity and shape of each beam. This more targeted treatment spared more healthy tissues (including hair follicles) thereby significantly reducing the amount of hair loss.

Four weeks after the IMRT ended, half of the patients in the study reported no noticeable hair loss, while the other half reported only slightly noticeable hair loss. Other effects of whole brain radiotherapy (such as a rash on the scalp or behind the ears) were also virtually eliminated using the IMRT. In the short term, follow-up has revealed positive results; overall survival rate is 100 percent, and only one patient has seen a progression of cancer.

Researchers believe the results of the study will encourage more doctors to consider using IMRT to treat cancer that has spread to the brain. Todd Scarbrough, M.D., lead author of the study and a radiation oncologist at the MIMA Cancer Center in Melbourne, Florida, is especially hopeful the study will help improve the quality of life for cancer patients. “Although hair loss may seem trivial, losing one’s hair can be difficult for a patient who is already depressed from the diagnosis and the strain of treatments.”

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