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Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center Provides New Ways to Fight Disease - 2004-04-01

It has now been 32 years since President Nixon declared war on cancer. Cancer remains the second-ranked cause of death behind heart disease, killing more than a half of a million people in the United States alone each year. But medical advances have reduced the mortality rate for some types of cancer and allowed many cancer patients to live longer and better lives. One of the nation's leading medical centers is working to help patients and their families live with cancer today and look to the possibility of a better tomorrow.

In the pediatrics ward at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, children with cancer spend their time between treatment sessions attending classes. They also have time to play and to spend time with their families.

Dr. Eugenie S. Kleinerman, head of the Pediatrics Division at M.D. Anderson, says maintaining some aspect of normal life is an essential part of fighting the disease.

"We have school every day from 10 to 12 and from one to three," said Dr. Kleinerman. "Children are required to go to school. We have a full curriculum, including physical education. This sends a very positive message also because it says to the child, we intend to cure you and then you are going on with your life, so we want to make sure things progress just like [they do for] all of your friends."

Cancer can be a debilitating disease and when a child is stricken, it takes a heavy toll on parents and siblings as well. For this reason, Dr. Kleinerman says the hospital provides support to families as well.

"We have a very active psychology program," he said. "Our social workers and our child-life people work with the families. We have a lot of educational sessions for the families. We go over the therapies in depthwhat to expect, the side effects. They really think of this as a second home and we become part of their family and they look to us for a lot of answers."

The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is part of the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston, known worldwide for its medical treatments and scientific advances. Since operations began in 1944, the hospital and research center has treated more than 600,000 patients from all over the world. The Center's slogan is "making cancer history" and while the disease remains deadly, doctors and technicians here have helped thousands of people to survive.

Dr. James D. Cox, head of M.D. Anderson's Radiation Oncology Division, says most patients come for short-term treatment and then return to their home towns for follow-up treatment.

"They come here for surgery or an initial evaluation and a plan of treatment and then they go back closer to their home to be treated," said Dr. Cox. "They have the same radiation equipment there. They may not have the same team of people specializing in a disease as we do, but they go home because there is radiation treatment capability close to their home."

Dr. Cox looks forward to the day, a couple of years from now, when M.D. Anderson will have a fully operational proton therapy facility. Unlike normal radiation systems, this innovative treatment can destroy cancer cells while sparing most normal tissue. He says that is because it is possible to control and narrowly focus proton beams.

"We can focus them and thereby avoid the normal tissues," explained Dr. Cox. "We have a lower dose at the entry, we have the maximum dose where the tumor is and then the beam just stops. So we can spare normal tissues to a much greater degree than we can with any other approach."

The proton treatments will take five to seven weeks to eliminate tumors and Dr. Cox says that by 2006 he hopes to see as many as 3,000 patients a year being treated.

Such scientific achievements have helped in the war against cancer, but it is a disease that is difficult to attack on all fronts. Cancer takes nearly 100 forms and is sometimes hard to detect until it is too far advanced for medical treatment to save the patient. Still, there are now more than eight million people in the United States who have survived the disease. The medical professionals at M.D. Anderson and other health facilities around the world continue their effort to , as they put it, "make cancer history."