• 7/21/2006
  • Appleton, WI
  • Wendy Harris
  • Post Crescent (www.postcrescent.com)

What seemed like your average winter sore throat eventually gave Janelle Zempel the shock of her life.

She had cancer in her neck.

“I thought that was it,” said Zempel, now 57, who figured she’d just be given a death sentence in the spring of 2003 when her persistent sore throat by then had grown into a door knob-sized tumor.

By the time she arrived at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee for treatment, doctors gave her hope that she could survive. But the initial plan they offered was horrendous.

“They told me they’d have to (operate on) my larynx, the jugular vein on the left side of my neck, my esophagus, and another vein in my shoulder,” said Zempel, of Fremont. “And I’d have to have a feeding tube for a year until they could reconstruct my esophagus.”

And then they gave her another option — a new diagnostic and treatment approach that was being tested by Dr. Dian Wang, assistant professor of radiation oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who practices at Froedtert.

Wang was conducting a study involving head and neck cancer patients that used combined images from PET and CT scans to more accurately visualize tumors, and then attack them with a very precise form of radiation, called intensity-modulated radiation therapy.

Traditionally, CT scans — an X-ray test that takes pictures of thin slices of the body, are used for seeing tumors. A PET scan, meanwhile, uses a short-lived radioactive solution, which, when injected into the body, lights up organs — and tumors. While PET scan pictures don’t show as much detail as CT scans, combining the two creates a much more detailed picture of cancerous tumors, Wang found.

With nothing to lose, Zempel agreed to join the study.

“I did radiation five days a week for seven weeks and had three different five-hour chemo treatments,” she said.

She has now been cancer-free for nearly three years. And so far, she’s had no surgery.

Wang’s study, published in the May 2006 issue of the “International Journal of Oncology, Biology, Physics” — the official journal of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology, is the first report of clinical results using this fused technology in head and neck cancer patients.

“With more accurate tumor definition, patients with head and neck cancer who receive radiation therapy may have a greater chance of achieving tumor control,” Wang said.

Additionally, the precision of the radiation therapy decreases the likelihood of damaging adjacent tissues.

“I only lost my hair from my ears on down,” Zempel said.
Of the 28 patients who were followed for more than six months after treatment, 16 showed no signs of recurrence, the study found. Also, the combined images from both the PET and CT scans resulted in very different treatment plans in 14 of 16 patients whose plans had been initially designed using CT scanning alone. Zempel said she remains incredibly grateful to Wang, not only for his innovation, but his support.

“Dr. Wang is remarkable,” she said. “He sticks with you and keeps you positive.”

Wang believes the new approach can potentially save more lives.
“We’re hoping this study will encourage our colleagues to use PET/CT fusion regarding radiation therapy,” he said.

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