Controversial Cancer Treatment in Cancun

Most Americans go to Cancun in the winter to escape the cold, have fun in the sand and bake in the sun. But that is not what brought Richard and Diane Brightmire all the way from Denver.

"I'm off to a hospital to improve my life," said Richard Brightmire, as he and his wife left their hotel at sunrise and loaded into a waiting van.

Brightmire, 61, has prostate cancer. He came to Mexico for medical treatment at a private hospital just 20 minutes from the beaches of Cancun — treatment that he can't get in the United States, even though it was developed there and is legal just about everywhere else in the world.

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The treatment — called HIFU or high intensity focused ultrasound — literally burns the prostate and cancerous cells using focused ultrasound waves.

Europe, Canada, Japan, Mexico and many other countries have accepted the science behind HIFU, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has demanded lengthy scientific trials before the technology will be approved for use here.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer found in U.S. men. Conventional treatments usually involve surgical removal, radiation or hormone injections.

After two years of holistic treatments, Brightmire's cancer hadn't gone away and his urologist in Denver told him it was too advanced to ignore. Brightmire didn't like the options his urologist offered, particularly the possible side effects and consequences of the procedures.

"They probably eliminate the cancer but you have to live in so many cases with the undesirable consequences," he said.

What Brightmire is talking about are some of the biggest fears facing men with prostate cancer. In eradicating the cancer, the prevailing therapies — surgical removal, radiation seeds, freezing and hormone therapy — can have devastating effects on urinary and erectile function.

The possibility of a better outcome is why men like Brightmire are willing to travel to Mexico and spend $25,000 of their money on an experimental treatment.

George Suarez is the medical director of USHIFU, the American company behind the technology. A licensed and practicing urologist in Miami, he travels to Cancun most weekends to provide the treatment.

Kill the Tissue, Kill the Cancer

HIFU is 21st-century medicine — no incisions, no blood and the entire procedure takes just a few hours.

"This is completely hands off, image guided," Suarez said as he prepared to insert an ultrasound probe inside Brightmire, who lay on the operating table under anesthetic. "Once I place the transducer into the patient, I should not need to touch the patient until I'm finished. Everything will be done by the computer."

Gradually, an ultrasound image of the prostate began to appear on the computer screen.

"What we're going to do is we're going to mark off the prostate area that we want to treat," Suarez said, explaining how he would use the computer to mark grids of 3-millimeter-wide lesions that would cover the entire prostate. "It'll burn off that region."

Suarez was quick to add that he was "not going to boil it to the point one would think of it. The idea is to kill the tissue and to kill the cancer. Both."

Burn by microscopic burn, the prostate — and they hope the cancer — will be killed. The ultrasound allows the doctor to identify and, in theory, avoid critical nerves and blood vessels.

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