Scores of cancer-stricken Canadians going abroad for regional chemotherapy

by Leo Almazora04 Jul 2018

For many cancer patients, chemotherapy has been a treatment of necessity rather than choice. The procedure involves delivering drugs intravenously and letting them spread through the entire body, increasing the risk of side effects. But there’s a more targeted alternative.

“Regional chemotherapy targets the cancerous cells or tumour directly, rather than seeping through the entire body,” reported the Ottawa Sun. The treatment has garnered attention from scores of Canadian patients, who are reportedly spending tens of thousands of dollars for regional chemo sessions in other countries like Germany.

Delivering the drug directly to the affected site makes sense to many; terminal patients believe it could extend their time with loved ones by several months. But according to Rebecca Auer, director of cancer research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, clinical trials haven’t produced enough evidence to support its broad use for different types of cancer.

“There are some diseases for which it has shown to be beneficial and others it has not,” Auer told the Sun. The treatment is used in certain institutions for certain types of cancer. At Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, it’s offered to patients with secondary cancer in the liver that began with colorectal cancer; if the secondary cancer was originally from breast cancer, the patient isn’t eligible.

Auer added that the proportion of patients who will improve with regional chemotherapy, as suggested by the science, is not high enough to justify the costs and health risks involved. However, she conceded that there’s strong anecdotal evidence of its success for certain patients.

“There’s only some patients who have the means, the resourcefulness, the stamina or the endurance to go into this kind of experimental treatment,” she said. “Those patients may be ones that already are going to do better.”

Another limiting factor to the broad application of regional chemotherapy is the expertise required. In a YouTube video, Dr. Karl Aigner of the Medias Klinikum in Burghausen, Germany explained that there are three layers of specialization needed.

“[W]hen you perform regional chemotherapy, you have to be a vascular surgeon,” he said. “Second, you have to know a lot about pharmacology — which drug and which concentration … Third, you have to be an interventional radiologist, you have to know where to place the catheters [through which medication is administered] angiographically.”

After the treatment, the patient’s blood is rid of excess medication via chemofiltration to limit side possible effects.

 

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