Former Beatle George Harrison is undergoing radiation to treat a brain tumor, but experts say it won't stop the spread of cancer from his lungs.
Earlier in the year Harrison had a tumor removed from his lung in the United States, and more recently received radiation therapy in Switzerland for a brain tumor.
The latest treatment is known as fractionated radiation therapy, and is being given at New York's Staten Island University Hospital to treat the metastatic tumor in his brain that spread from his lung.
The therapy, which involves high-dose radiation, has been around for more than 40 years, experts say. Focused beams of radiation are aimed directly at the tumor so as to avoid as much healthy brain tissue as possible. The beam is also rotated around the body so it can attack the tumor from all directions.
The technique used at Staten Island is completely non-invasive, and in almost all cases is an outpatient procedure where the patient is free to go home on the same day. In fact, Dr. Stephen Tatter, co-director of the Wake Forest University Gamma Knife Center, says his patients compare the procedure to getting your teeth cleaned by a fairly aggressive dental hygienist.
Doctors believe this technique and others like it are superior to whole brain irradiation, which can have much more severe side effects like memory loss and dementia.
Not a Cure
Harrison's physician, Dr. Gil Lederman, director of radiation oncology at Staten Island University Hospital, claims the success rate for this procedure is roughly 90 percent.
However, tumor experts caution that this is not a cure for cancer. Studies have shown that radiosurgery does not offer a survival advantage, but can increase the quality of life.
"For brain metastases in general, the 90 percent number is somewhat misleading," said Tatter.
"A lot of those things end up being a function of how long the person lives. If you die before your brain tumor comes back that's considered success, but it's not really success, obviously. If you look at actuarially adjusted success rates they're significantly lower; about 60 percent after one year."
So, unfortunately, even when intense radiation therapy does work to wipe out brain tumor metastases, the source of the original cancer, in Harrison's case cancer of the lungs, remains life threatening.
"It's rare, actually, that a patient with a metastatic brain tumor will die of their brain disease," said Dr. Robert Fenstermaker, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. "It's the primary lung cancer, for example, that will take their life maybe a year or two later."