HIPEC cancer treatment allows woman’s race for life to run its course

Deborah Sexauer
Boxing is part of Deborah Sexauer’s training for a 3-mile, 20-obstacle Spartan race in March.

DALLAS – Dec. 12, 2017 – Having battled cancer twice – the latest round using a new chemotherapy/surgery combo – Deborah Sexauer is racing to celebrate the many obstacles she’s had to conquer along the way.

She hits the gym after work with pushups and squats, hits the punching bag, and sometimes lifts weights as she trains for a famed 3-mile obstacle race in San Jose, California, this spring. The Spartan Race mission: “You can’t have a strong body without a strong mind, you can’t grow without pressure, obstacles help shift our frame of reference and make us more resilient.”

“The surgery was hard. I have an incision up my entire abdomen and they removed a lot,” said Ms. Sexauer, 47, who has been battling cancer for more than three years. “But now I feel amazing, and I’m ready to get back out and hopefully I’m ready to do another Spartan race.”

Ms. Sexauer still has stage 4 colon cancer, but this summer she underwent a 10-hour surgery that included removal of tumors that invaded multiple abdominal organs and an unusual heated chemotherapy treatment called HIPEC. The combination of surgery and intra-abdominal chemotherapy treatment bought her cancer-free time – quality time – for her “celebration of life” obstacle race.

The treatment has been shown to improve quality of life and prolong survival for patients whose cancer has spread to the abdominal organs, explained Dr. Patricio Polanco, the UT Southwestern surgical oncologist who performed Ms. Sexauer’s surgery and Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC) at the medical center’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Before the specialized chemotherapy treatment is administered, Dr. Polanco performs cytoreductive surgery, which removes visible tumors in the abdominal cavity. Dr. Polanco then administers the chemotherapy solution, which is heated to the temperature of a warm bath, into the abdominal cavity, where it is gently agitated for 90 minutes. Heating the chemotherapy solution improves absorption by tumor cells that might remain in the belly, Dr. Polanco said. He then drains the solution and the incision is closed.

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Dr. Patricio Polanco says HIPEC treatment can add years and significantly improve quality of life for stage 4 cancer patients.

“Standard chemotherapy is systemic, and affects the entire body. HIPEC maximizes exposure of tumor cells to chemotherapy drugs while minimizing system effects,” said Dr. Polanco, Assistant Professor of Surgery with the Simmons Cancer Center, in hopes of prolonging survival and improving quality of life.

The HIPEC procedure is an advanced treatment for colorectal and ovarian cancer, peritoneal mesothelioma, and certain gastrointestinal cancers, including cancers of the appendix, that have spread within the abdomen.

The likelihood that more tumors will grow still remains high in some cases, but this treatment is able to prolong the life of patients and to significantly improve their quality of life, Dr. Polanco said.

Ms. Sexauer was a good candidate for the highly advanced treatment. After first being diagnosed in 2014 with colon cancer, she underwent traditional treatment including surgery and 12 rounds of chemotherapy. But a year later, the cancer was back and she underwent more surgery in 2016.

Her oncologist explained that the specialized HIPEC surgery-therapy might be an option for her, and set about trying to identify one of the few elite centers offering the treatment. Her daughter, Sabrina Lindley, had just started as a nurse trainee at UT Southwestern, making the National Cancer Institute-designated Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center in Texas an excellent fit.

“It all fell into place perfectly,” Ms. Sexauer said.

In addition, Ms. Sexauer’s passion for keeping fit made her a good candidate for HIPEC treatment. After her cancer returned in 2015, she had stepped up her fitness conditioning and eventually worked her way into a group training for the Spartan obstacle course races. The race involves obstacles such traversing monkey bars, scaling walls, and climbing across nets. She’s already completed one such race and is back training for another she plans to take part in this March.

“Considering her initial stage 4 colon cancer, training for and participating in this race is a major achievement, and an inspiration to others, including myself,” Dr. Polanco said. “The idea of being able to give advanced stage cancer patients the possibility of resuming and enjoying life again is our ultimate goal in cancer care.”

In the race, Ms. Sexauer expects to traverse about 20 challenging obstacles in about 2 ½ hours and cross the finish line – disheveled, muddy, and gasping for breath ­– but victorious.

“It took me a while to regain my strength, but I’ve gotten my strength back and it feels great to be doing this,” Ms. Sexauer said. “I’m feeling amazing, and thrilled to be back out there."

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty includes many distinguished members, including six who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. The faculty of almost 2,800 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in about 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients and oversee approximately 2.2 million outpatient visits a year.