It’s difficult to comprehend a more frightening diagnosis than being told you have advanced and inoperable pancreatic cancer. Connie Harrington, 76, knows exactly the feeling. In the fall of 2021, that’s what she was told by her oncology team at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona.
Her recall of the moment is very detailed: “I went to the doctor and he explained to me that I had a very aggressive cancer, an adenocarcinoma, and that it was wrapped around the head of my pancreas and extended into the mesentery (the organ in which all abdominal digestive organs develop) … which, as it was explained to me, is basically a curtain of blood vessels that run between your lungs and heart and your whole abdominal area.”
Connie would also be told that her advanced cancer was inoperable and chemotherapy was the best immediate option. After several months of grueling chemo, a CT scan showed “that my cancer had shrunk some, but it was still inoperable at that point.”
(Watch video now: Hear from cancer patient Connie Harrington and Michael Chuong, M.D., FACRO, the lead physician for the MRI-guided radiation program and the medical director for Miami Cancer Institute’s Department of Radiation Oncology.)
That’s when she said her oncologist mentioned a very innovative and pioneering radiation technology available at a location quite a distance from her home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was referring to Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute and the ViewRay™ MRIdian MR Linac Therapy, which is the first FDA-cleared MR (magnetic resonance)-guided radiation therapy system. The MR Linac Therapy has been available at the Institute for five years, providing the most precise radiation treatment for more than 700 cancer patients who undergo faster and smoother recoveries compared to traditional therapies.
Unlike conventional treatment, MRI-guided radiation offered by MR Linac provides real-time visualization of the tumor and extremely precise treatment despite the heavy doses of radiation – with virtually no side effects to the patient. Michael Chuong, M.D., is the lead physician for the MRI-guided radiation program and the medical director for Miami Cancer Institute’s Department of Radiation Oncology.
“My oncologist at Mayo, who I respect so much, said you need more than traditional radiation,” recalls Connie. “He told me: You need real-time information on where your tumor is in order for it to be successful. And that real-time radiation is only available today with MRI-guided radiation. And he told me: 'The very best place in the country that I have found after researching it is at the Miami Cancer Institute – and Dr. Chuong.'
“And, he added, the most important thing is that the patient gets the best treatment possible. He said: ‘My advice to you and your husband (Rick) is that you go to Miami and get treatment at the Miami Cancer Institute.’ And that’s how I got to Dr. Chuong at the Institute.' ”
Last summer, Connie Harrington, drove to Miami with her husband Rick. They’ve been married for about three years and share six children and nine grandchildren. They spent the first week in South Florida relaxing and enjoying the beaches and other attractions. Her MRI-guided radiation took up the second week of their stay. She underwent five treatment sessions, Monday through Friday. Total treatment time was three to four hours of actual radiation.
Explains Dr. Chuong: “She had a particular type of pancreas cancer that was not able to be removed by surgery because of how extensive it was -- wrapping around some of the major blood vessels in the abdomen, and also being surrounded nearly on all sides by the stomach and the intestines -- a very difficult place to operate on.”
She was treated for five consecutive days at the Institute -- about 45 minutes of radiation per day.
Recalls Connie: “Bottom line: There was no pain or discomfort at all. In fact, I felt nothing when the radiation was delivered. And that was a real positive because Dr. Chung was very clear to describe this as the strongest radiation that it is possible to deliver to the human body safely. Regular radiation is a much less of a dose. And with traditional radiation, I would have had three to five weeks of treatment. This is a much stronger vote dose for a very concentrated period of time.”
Dr. Chuong says Connie’s case exemplifies the effectiveness of the MRI-guided technology at the Institute, which continues to attract patients and oncologists from around the nation and globally.
“I was thrilled to hear that Connie’s scans have been completely negative, which suggests that she's disease free at this time,” he said. “And her tumor marker numbers, which were significantly elevated before treatment, indicating active tumor, is now in the completely normal range, indicating that she's had a tremendous response to treatment.”
Connie is extremely grateful and feels very fortunate to have been referred to Miami Cancer Institute.
“When my friends ask how I'm doing, I say to them: I'm a walking miracle.’ And my oncologist in Arizona summarized it the very best,” she says. “When I went to see him, he said: ‘Connie, you received the benefit of 21st-century chemo therapy, but 22nd-century radiotherapy (at Miami Cancer Institute). And I said: ‘So, what is my prognosis?’ And he said: ‘I can't tell you because this is so unique. You are doing so well with the most aggressive type of pancreatic cancer, and I have no experience with this. So, my life and my future have been fundamentally changed.”