Dr. Thomas Schroeder
Dr. Thomas Schroeder is medical director of radiation oncology at the UNM Cancer Center, and an assistant professor of hematology and oncology at the UNM School of Medicine

The University of New Mexico Cancer Center is offering a new treatment option that could help patients with brain cancer better preserve strength and health. The non-invasive outpatient procedure – stereotactic radiosurgery –  kills tumor cells in the brain in a single treatment. 

The procedure uses existing UNM Cancer Center radiation therapy equipment to focus a set of x-ray beams on a single tiny point inside the brain. The x-rays kill the cells at that point. Creating the procedure required a multidisciplinary team that included a neurosurgeon, radiation oncologist and radiation physicist.

“The reason stereotactic radio surgery is tricky is because the forgiving aspect of traditional radiation treatment is gone. There is no room for error,” says Dr. Thomas Schroeder, medical director of radiation oncology at the UNM Cancer Center.

“When we treat someone for breast cancer or lung cancer or a cancer in the abdomen, people are breathing," he explains. "Their insides move around. We account for this by adding margin to the treatment volume.” Additionally, Schroeder says, most radiation treatments are given slowly over weeks. Normal tissues repair damage from the radiation between treatments.

But in stereotactic radiosurgery, there is no room for error because the brain is a very delicate organ and the radiation is given in a single large dose. Physicians painstakingly find the exact location of the tumor. “The tumor could be right next to a very important structure in the brain or next to a very important nerve,” Schroeder says. “With our process, we can achieve sub-millimeter accuracy. It was a challenge for our physics department to make sure we got everything right.”

Recently, the UNM Cancer Center team successfully treated its first patient using their newly-developed and heavily tested process. Schroeder was pleased with the result.

“It’s about trying to take care of our patients,” he says. “That’s what we’re here to do.”