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Cutting-Edge Cancer Care: Advanced Radiation Therapy in Pittsburgh’s Northern Communities

This content is sponsored by UPMC.

After two surgeries for prostate cancer, Don Wisniewski underwent radiation therapy at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC Passavant–McCandless to kill returning cancer cells. He credits the technology and expert care he received from doctors, nurses, and staff for a good experience and positive results.

“I’ve always been conscientious about my health,” says Don “Wiz” Wisniewski, 72, of Gibsonia. “I was especially glad I kept my yearly urologist appointment in 2019.” That’s when a routine blood test showed Wiz’s prostate specific antigen (PSA) was rising — an indicator of possible prostate cancer.

After a biopsy confirmed cancer, Wiz had surgery at UPMC Passavant to remove his prostate gland. In November 2022, tests showed his PSA levels were rising again, and Wiz had robotic surgery to remove lymph nodes near his tailbone.

Sometimes a few cancer cells remain after surgery. They’re difficult to find on a scan until they grow a bit. When cancer cells appeared again in early 2023, Wiz’s doctors consulted with a radiation oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC Passavant. Based on his history, the doctor recommended that Wiz undergo pelvic radiation. A positron emission tomography (PET) scan identified where to direct the radiation. Radiation therapy can treat a broad area to reach these cells without damaging the surrounding organs.

“At first I was nervous about getting radiation,” says Wiz. “But my doctor explained the process clearly, and I understood what was going to happen and why. I thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’”

Radiation Therapy: How It Works

Tumor cells are more sensitive to radiation than normal cells. Radiation therapy can kill abnormal cancer cells or damage them beyond repair so they can no longer spread. Wiz received external beam radiation therapy through a linear accelerator, or LINAC. The LINAC is a specialized device that delivers a beam of radiation into the body to treat the affected area.

“Imagine a bicycle wheel,” explains Heath Skinner, MD, PhD, chair and medical director of the Department of Radiation Oncology at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “In the center of the wheel you have the hub — where the energy beam is focused. Around the hub are many spokes. The spokes spread a low dose of energy around the hub to also treat the surrounding areas.”

Each treatment adds a little more radiation, augmenting the overall effect. “Think of the treatments like a piggy bank you had when you were a kid,” says Dr. Skinner. “You drop a penny in the bank every day, and as the days go by, your pennies add up.” This daily application (a penny a day) of low-dose radiation through the LINAC adds to the cumulative dose needed to kill the cancer.

Box rule/Sidebar Cutting-Edge Radiation Technology UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC Passavant–McCandless will acquire a more advanced LINAC in early 2024 offering a broader spectrum of high- and low-dose radiation so fewer treatments are needed. “The new LINAC will improve treatment for more challenging tumors,” says Dr. Skinner. “It also will allow us to direct radiation therapy to more sites in the body. Our goal is to deliver the best radiation treatment to the smallest area possible.” This upgrade is a continuation of UPMC’s expansion of cancer care and services in the northern communities. In late 2022, extensive renovations of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC Passavant–Cranberry were unveiled.

Wiz’s Plan of Action

“I was prescribed one radiation therapy session, which totals 38 individual treatments,” says Wiz. “I went to UPMC Passavant-McCandless every weekday morning for just over seven weeks in April and May.

“I’m a little claustrophobic and was worried when I went in the first time,” says Wiz. “I was relieved when I saw how it actually worked. I’d go into the treatment room and settle on the table. The radiation technician then positioned the LINAC and the machine moved around the table.”

Wiz received hormone therapy in conjunction with radiation. “With hormone-sensitive prostate cancer, cancer cells need testosterone to grow,” says Dr. Skinner. “Hormone therapy represses the production of testosterone to stop the growth of cancer cells.”

“We also want to minimize the side effects of radiation therapy as much as possible,” he says. “We can’t promise zero side effects for all types of radiation, but that’s what we’re aiming for.”

Besides fatigue, patients usually experience few side effects from radiation therapy for prostate cancer. “I actually played nine holes of golf every Wednesday and worked part-time when I was going through radiation,” says Wiz. “I stayed busy but didn’t do a lot of heavy lifting. I slept more and went to bed earlier.”

Exceptional Support

Wiz says he’s grateful for the exceptional support he received throughout his treatment at UPMC Passavant.

“I can’t say enough about the support and care I got every day — from the doctors, radiation therapy nurses, and techs to the front desk receptionists who knew me by name when I walked in,” says Wiz. “There was always someone to answer questions and help me through things. It was reassuring to know they were watching out for me every step of the way.”

They also celebrated with him when he finished his final treatment, he adds.

“The nurses and staff were there to congratulate me: ‘You’re done! Ring the bell to celebrate!’,” says Wiz. “My wife gave me a hug. All the nurses told me how happy they were for me. It was a very moving experience.”

Today, Wiz is back to his busy life in retirement: working with his nonprofit to build and repair houses pro bono in West Virginia, attending Pirates games with his wife, getting out on the golf course, and keeping busy with a part-time job at a local building supply store.

“Great people work at UPMC Passavant,” says Wiz. “I’ve only had good experiences with UPMC — I’m so glad I chose them.”

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