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Shining a light to kill cancer: Unique treatment offers hope for patients

Posted at 6:25 PM, Aug 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-10 00:28:37-04

It's a frightening diagnosis that can make your whole world come to a standstill.

John Sansone was diagnosed with Kidney cancer in 2012. Finding blood in his stool and a sharp pain in his side sent him to the emergency room. That is when he was told he had a tumor on his kidney and had Renal cancer.

After surgery to remove the tumor and the Kidney Sansone thought the worst was over. Nine months later, when he noticed blood after coughing he was back at the doctor's office, only to be told the Cancer had spread into his lungs.

The deadly diagnosis came just nine months after his marriage.

"You don't know what to do with it. You hear the word cancer and you think death," said Sansone.

He admits, he didn't think he would be alive in the year 2018.  

Sansone said doctors tried several different treatments on him, none worked, some seemed to work only for a short time, and most made him feel very sick.

"A lot of fatigue, some nausea, no energy to do a whole lot of anything. Just standing up you just felt you had zero energy left in the tank," said Sansone.

In 2014 Sansone started his treatment at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Goodyear. His Pulmonologist was Dr. Sharad Chandrika.

"I call this place Cheers Hospital because when you walk in this place everybody knows your name, and that plays a big part because you don't feel like you're just a number," said Sansone.

He added that Dr. Chandrika helped him stay positive and hopeful through his treatments. He learned he had a tumor the size of a lemon blocking his airways.

"It’s just not being able to breathe. You get scared like I'm choking, I can't breathe," said Sansone.

Seeing her patient getting sicker and weaker by the day, "I knew we had to come with something new," said Dr. Chandrika.

Knowing his history she knew the traditional and popular methods had not shown good results.

"They had tried to burn the tumor, freeze the tumor, he'd had stints placed before seeing me.  He went through chemotherapy and radiation, both external and internal radiation," said Dr. Chandrika.

She worried because she was doing a Bronchoscopy on Sansone every month and seeing him get sicker. That is a procedure where a Lung specialist puts a tube through your mouth or nose with a camera attached to it to look inside your lungs.

"He'd developed Pneumonia right next to the airway occlusion. He was now on Oxygen, 2-3 liters of Oxygen all the time," said Dr. Chandrika.

That was about the time she was introduced to PDT or photodynamic therapy. The treatment which has been around for decades, but not used very much works by injecting a chemical known as Porfimer into your body. This chemical is extremely photosensitive and reacts to light.  Dr. Chandrika said the chemical was readily absorbed by cancer cells, making them extremely sensitive to light.  

"The treatment is now making a resurgence," said Dr. Chandrika.  

Staff at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America said Dr. Chandrika was the first doctor to use the treatment on a cancer patient with a tumor blocking an airway.

"I was at my wits end. He had gone through all the definitive treatments like Chemotherapy and Radiation," said Dr. Chandrika.

Two days after injecting the Porfimer, Dr. Chandrika said the patient was then sedated, and a tube with a fiber optic cable put into their body. The cable had a laser light attached to it.

"We shine the intense laser light on the tumor through the Bronchoscope. That leads to an intense photochemical reaction. The cancer cells get swollen and the blood vessels break down.  That is how the cancer cell death happens," explained Dr. Chandrika.

During the procedure hospital staff and the patient are donning gloves, gowns, masks, and long-sleeved clothes to protect them from the laser lights. Sansone joked that he looked like a beekeeper during the treatment.

While Dr. Chandrika called the PDT treatment her last resort, in hindsight she admitted that she wished she would have tried it sooner.

A typical treatment lasts for 2-3 sessions, then the doctor has to go clean up the dead cells left behind. Dr. Chandrika calls the treatment nothing short of a miracle.

"I was very happy I have to tell you that. Within two days we got him off the Oxygen. He no longer had Pneumonia and there were no more Bronchoscopies," said Dr. Chandrika.

She stressed this was a "palliative" treatment, that helped improve a patient's quality of life. It did not cure them of the ailment.

Sansone said he now has a new lease on life, and wanted other cancer patients to know they should hang in there as there were so many treatments doctors can now try to make you live longer.

"It just goes in seasons. If you're having a bad season, don't worry about it. Just remember it's only a season," said Sansone.

Dr. Chandrika said this therapy was a testament to the fact that the field of Oncology research was booming.

"Four years ago, John was told these are your only choices. Now there are so many more treatments. We hope to make cancer a chronic disease. Just like diabetes, hypothyroidism, we really hope to make cancer a chronic disease, if not a curable disease," said Dr. Chandrika.

Staff at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America said they were now getting requests for Dr. Chandrika to share her experience with PDT and help train other physicians throughout Arizona.