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'Individual medicine' at new cancer center

Oncologist discusses future cancer treatment

Oncology nurse Keara Holmes leads a tour through the new chemotherapy infusion center. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
December 09, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — By the time the Harrington Cancer Center, which celebrated its formal open house Wednesday, passes its centennial — as has its parent hospital — the hope is that cancer will no longer be a problem.

But long before then, the illness is likely to face treatment methods only now being tested, and maybe not yet even imagined.

"We know somewhat about some cancers, and need to learn more about many, but eventually, every cancer has some origins in genetics," said Dr. Shakeeb Yunus, Harrington's chief oncologist. "… It's going to become individual medicine."

Although that's certainly somewhat true today, for years, fighting cancer has been a careful ballet focused on balancing the effectiveness of highly toxic drugs with their side effects on the patient, juggling when to use drugs (chemotherapy) vs. when to try radiation, and, in too many cases, when to stop treatment in favor of palliative care because the cancer is terminal.

Research has been looking into making the drugs less toxic, but Dr. James Stephens noted they still have to be mixed in a sealed room with negative pressure, so that fumes and spills don't escape into the rest of the building. He said that's in part because they often contain heavy metals — things that would normally trigger a toxic cleanup process if found in the soil..

"Chemotherapy uses great drugs, but they're very strong; they're poisons, basically," Stephens said. "That's why we have to keep the patients well, well informed about the down-side risks."

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