The fight against cancer can include an unexpectedly simple, but powerful remedy: heat.
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Doctors call it hyperthermia, and they use it to treat cancers that are on or just below the skin’s surface, almost the way you would a heating pad.
They heat water bags to 109˚ or 110˚ F — and keep them at this temperature with small microwave units that continue heating the bags. Then, they place the water back and microwave unit on the person’s body, where the cancer is located.
Hyperthermia is usually used along with radiation therapy, especially in recurrent cancers that haven’t responded to radiation used alone.
Radiation oncologist Jennifer Yu, MD, PhD, runs one of the few hyperthermia programs in the U.S. and the only one in the state of Ohio. She says hyperthermia can improve the effectiveness of radiation.
“It can also target certain tumor cells that are more resistant to radiation and chemotherapy,” she adds.
You might wonder how heated water bags and microwave units can really be effective in fighting cancer. Here’s why it works, especially when it’s part of a broader therapy. Hyperthermia:
- Impairs tumor cells in their ability to repair radiation damage
- Increases blood flow to the tumor, which makes the tumor cells more sensitive to the radiation
- Supports the immune system’s response to fighting cancer cells
What it feels like
It’s a natural first response — Dr. Yu’s patients often express worry that the hyperthermia treatments will burn them.
Wire thermometers called thermistors help practitioners ensure that the bags aren’t overheating. Even with this precaution, hyperthermia can cause the skin to blister in about 10 percent of cases. This typically heals quickly, Dr. Yu says.
“It feels a heating pad and, and for most patients, it’s not uncomfortable,” Dr. Yu says.
She says it’s typical to do these treatments twice a week during a person’s course of radiation, and that it takes about an hour for each treatment.
What it does
Research shows hyperthermia with radiation work better together than radiation does alone in controlling cancer.
In 2010, researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that the clinical response of breast cancer resulting from radiation with hyperthermia was 65 percent, as compared to 42 percent for radiation alone.
Doctors have used hyperthermia for a long time, Dr. Yu says.
Researchers in Dr. Yu’s lab are also exploring the potential of hyperthermia to do more to fight cancer. Currently, they want to see if it could treat the tumor “initiating cells” that promote growth in brain tumors.
“Combining hyperthermia and radiation is a great treatment for people who have failed prior chemotherapy and radiation therapy,” Dr. Yu says.
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