She's never felt better.
Spencer, 68 of Merritt Island, Fla., who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, traveled to Regional Medical Center last week to become the Anniston hospital's first patient treated with stereotactic body radiation therapy. It's a relatively new treatment for certain lung cancer patients that is growing across the country due to its high success rate and low incidence of side effects. It is also a technique that could help many residents in Alabama — a state with some of the highest lung cancer death rates in the country.
"I'm not feeling any effects," Spencer said after receiving radiation treatments last week. "As hard as it is to believe, I feel better."
Spencer, who used to be a regular smoker, said the cancer had been forcing her to cough uncontrollably for the previous six months. After receiving just two treatments at RMC, however, she noticed her coughing had stopped.
"And I'm not feeling nauseated," Spencer said. "It's just wonderful."
The treatment, as it grows in use, could mean the difference between life or death for many Alabamians.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Also, CDC statistics show Alabama is among the top 10 states with the most cases of lung cancer and with the highest lung cancer death rates. Approximately 3,400 to 4,600 Alabamians are diagnosed with lung cancer and about 2,600 to 3,300 die from the disease each year, statistics show.
The lung cancer rates are tied with the state's high rates of smoking, which is the leading cause of lung cancer. CDC statistics show Alabama is among the top five states with the highest smoking rates.
The stereotactic treatment was made possible at RMC not because of new technology. The equipment necessary has been at the hospital for a few years. Instead, RMC can offer the treatment due to Dr. Todd Scarbrough, a radiation oncologist the hospital hired in July. Scarbrough said he is specially trained to use stereotactic body radiation therapy.
"I've just been keeping up to date on the technology," Scarbrough said.
Stereotactic body radiation therapy involves the use of digital imaging to scan and pinpoint tumors in the lung in real-time. The cancer cells are then exposed to a high-intensity, shaped beam of radiation. Unlike more traditional forms of cancer radiation therapy, which use weaker radiation exposures over a seven- to eight-week period, stereotactic therapy requires just one week of three to five treatments. Also, unlike traditional cancer treatments, stereotactic tends to have fewer side effects such as exhaustion and nausea. The shorter time frame of the technique is better as well since it means less travel for the patient. Scarbrough said.
The treatment does have limitations, specifically, while it can be used on some other types of cancers, it's most effective on lung cancer, Scarbrough said. Also, it is only used on patients with stage one lung cancer, the earliest stage of the disease with the greatest survival rate, he said.
Still, there are many people with stage one lung cancer, who previously only had surgery as an option for treatment, Scarbrough said.
"And the three to five treatments for one week period can have a 90 percent cure rate," he said.
Spencer understands the life-changing nature of her treatment, given this is not the first time she's battled cancer. Scarbrough previously treated Spencer for other cancers, including advanced laryngeal and throat cancer in 2005.
"The treatment was extremely difficult to endure and for three months, I was deathly sick," Spencer said. "But it worked."
Scarbrough also in 2007 treated and cured Spencer of a more aggressive form of lung cancer near her heart with other cutting-edge techniques.
Scarbrough said he plans to treat more RMC patients with the stereotactic technique in the near future.
"It's just a different era now ... patients who we once thought were uncurable are now being treated," Scarbrough said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.