Gamma Knife procedure 'the way to go'

By Connie Piloto 

Ken Hardin’s pain started out of the blue one spring day in 2005. Every time he touched the left side of his face — to rub an eye or touch his upper lip — a bolt of intense pain would shoot through his face.

“Sometimes the pain would last two seconds, sometimes up to 30 seconds,” said Mr. Hardin.

The Arlington resident did his own research and consulted with several neurologists who determined he was suffering from trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic pain condition that causes extreme, sporadic, sudden burning or shocklike face pain.

The condition is often treated with medication that can make patients feel tired and sleepy. There were other treatment options, but most included surgery, he found. Then, he read about radiosurgery using the Gamma Knife system.

Ken and Joyce Hardin

Mr. Hardin’s neurologist referred him to Dr. Robert Timmerman, professor of radiation oncology at UT Southwestern, who recommended treatment with the Gamma Knife, which uses highly focused and targeted radiation to treat vascular malformations, cancer and benign tumors in the brain when conventional surgery can’t be done.

In addition to treating brain disorders and tumors, the Gamma Knife’s accuracy and pinpoint precision have helped many people like Mr. Hardin to recover from constant and debilitating pain of more uncommon functional disorders like trigeminal neuralgia.

At UT Southwestern, radiation oncologists use high-tech, image-guided radiation tools such as the Gamma Knife and a related system called the CyberKnife to target tumors and offer breakthrough radiation treatments.

“We have paired our state-of-the-art technology and our research capabilities with a team of world-renowned radiosurgery experts to provide our patients with the latest advancements in cancer treatment,” said Dr. Hak Choy, chairman of radiation oncology.

Stereotactic therapy delivers high-dose radiation beams to a tumor in a concentrated, extremely precise manner. Many beams of radiation — often more than 100 — are directed at the tumor from different directions. Each of these beams is relatively weak and causes very little damage when traveling through the patient’s body.

However, when all the beams converge at the target, their cumulative effect adds up to an extremely potent dose aimed at destroying the target cells with great precision.

“I was a little anxious about the treatments, but when I read about the Gamma Knife, I knew that if it was an option for me, that was the way to go,” Mr. Hardin said. “It was not invasive at all.”

Mr. Hardin was fitted with a special helmet that kept his skull from moving during the treatment at UT Southwestern. Then, 201 separate beams of cobalt-60 radiation were targeted on Mr. Hardin’s brain stem during a treatment that lasted less than an hour.

“The helmet allows us to have the mechanical accuracy of a tenth of a millimeter. You could hardly hold your fingers that far apart. Then, we treat the nerve as it comes out of the brain stem,” explained Dr. Timmerman. “It’s a 4-millimeter section of the nerve right as it exits the brain stem, and it’s in a very critical area.”

Surgery would have required physicians to drill through the hardest bone in the body — the temporal bone — to access the area of the brain that controls hearing and facial functions.

“We can relieve the pain in about 80 percent of patients, and they get substantial relief,” Dr. Timmerman said. “About half of them will get complete relief within a week or two of the treatments.”

That’s what happened to Mr. Hardin. A week after the treatment he started feeling less pain. Two weeks later, the pain was gone, and he went back to enjoying life with his wife, Joyce, and family.

“Day-to-day living without pain, discomfort or medication is wonderful,” Mr. Hardin said. “I am much more productive and I am less of a burden physically and emotionally to those close to me.”

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Dr. Timmerman holds the Effie Marie Cain Distinguished Chair in Cancer Therapy Research.

Dr. Choy holds the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Distinguished Chair in Therapeutic Oncology Research.