The first time I injected radioactive material into a brain

The tumor was coming back bigger. It was going to kill him. We felt this treatment was the only option. 
Dr. Hui-Kuo Shu
Dr. Hui-Kuo Shu

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Hui-Kuo Shu
Radiation Oncology, Emory Winship Cancer Institute
We did a lot of
planning and dry runs, but I was still a bit nervous. This treatment—injecting radiation directly into the brain—is rarely used, and the last time it was done here at Emory was probably 25 years ago. There’s typically no reason to perform it now, with the development of external beam radiation, which is like getting a very targeted X-ray. That’s how this patient was originally treated for his brain tumor.

But even after the radiation treatment, he needed three brain surgeries within a year. Each time the tumor was coming back bigger. It was going to kill him. I’m not sure all radiation oncologists would feel comfortable doing this, but we felt it was the only option. 

The radioactive material is clear; it looks just like water. It’s not glowing. Using a syringe, we injected it into a port that was connected to a catheter leading to the very center of the patient’s brain, where the tumor was located. He was awake the entire time. We were talking him through it, injecting the material slowly to make sure we weren’t causing any sudden changes to his brain function.

Afterward the patient had a bad headache for a few days, but that was the only side effect. We recently saw him again about a year after the procedure, and the cancer is still under control. The patient is pretty much back to his normal life with no symptoms. So far, so good, thank goodness. —As told to Josh Green

This article originally appeared in our July 2017 issue.

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