New brain tumor treatment improving the odds for one metro woman

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Doctors at St. Luke's Health System in Kansas City say a new treatment is giving brain cancer patients hope and helping them live longer lives.

Michele Swartz said it's allowing her to enjoy her life and family.

Last spring, she said her husband had a feeling something was wrong.

"'You're not up as early as you used to be,'" Swartz said. "'You're in bed earlier.' Of course, it's my husband, so I don't really believe what he says or don't pay attention to him."

But friends and family also saw a change, and they encouraged her to go to the doctor. That's where she found out she had Glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

"It was fast," Swartz said. "They diagnosed it. They had a surgeon assigned, and I was set for surgery within a day."

After surgery, her doctor told her about a new treatment called Optune.

Michele Swartz

It's a device that attaches to the patients head with four panels that send signals into the brain. It's generated by a lithium battery the patient carries in a small pouch or backpack that weighs under 3 pounds.

Dr. Scott Turner, director of Neuro-Oncology at Saint Luke's, has been using Optune with patients for around a decade.

"The device generates an electromagnetic field inside the head that disrupts cell division," Turner said. "So when a tumor cell decides to divide, it can't do it in this field, and so it keeps the tumor from growing."

She wears the device 24 hours a day and takes it off a few times a week to shave her head and give her scalp a break. Swartz wears a scarf on her head to cover the device.

She said at first glance it's a little goofy, but after a while you forget about it, and the benefits outweigh the look.

"We keep coming in and checking MRIs and make sure that the tumor isn't growing, and we just kind of take it from there," Swartz said. "It's really nice to have another option. To know that there's a chance it can extend your life. Everything is always just a chance."

Turner said it's not a cure, but it's an improvement.

It's most effective when used alongside chemotherapy. He said using both can add years onto patients lives -- much more than would be expected with a Glioblastoma diagnosis.

"The 5-year survival used to be only 5%, and in the latest study using Optune, it's now 13%, which is almost triple," Turner said. "Still not great, but it's a big improvement from where it used to be."

The treatment allows Swartz to travel since the device is so light. She's been on trips with her family and girlfriends and said she enjoys every minute of it.

"They like to keep me around," Swartz said. "At least that's what they tell me to my face. We all die, and I probably know what I'm going to die of, so I'm going to do the best with what I can."

Turner said the device is expensive but is usually covered by a patient's insurance provider. If you're interested in learning more about Optune, you can visit their website here.

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