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Hawaii Pacific Oncology Center begins use of new linear accelerator

July 9, 2014 - 12:05am

This afternoon, some East Hawaii oncology patients will begin receiving treatment from the state’s newest, high-tech weapon in the fight against cancer.

The Varian TrueBeam linear accelerator, recently installed at Hilo Medical Center’s Hawaii Pacific Oncology Center, replaced a previous model that was about 13 years old, according to radiation oncologist Kevin Wilcox. Including the cost of the machine, the update of the clinic’s lead-lined vault and additional software and equipment, the total project cost comes in at about $4 million.

The high-energy X-ray machine can move 360 degrees around a patient to bombard cancerous tissue in specific locations, while limiting exposure of healthy tissue to the radiation. Using an attached CT scan system, patients can be positioned precisely, thereby helping focus the beam on malignant tissue. Additionally, a ceiling-mounted monitoring system tracks a patient’s breathing, keeping precise tabs on parts of the body targeted for treatment as they move up and down with the movements of the patient’s chest.

All that precision adds up to better outcomes for patients, while subjecting them to less time in the clinic and less recovery time, according to the Hawaii Pacific Oncology team.

Treatments using the previous machine could take between 15 and 20 minutes, while the new machine can do the same work in five or six minutes, said Clinic Manager Julie Leach.

Meanwhile, “we can see up to 20 percent better outcomes,” Wilcox added.

He added that the precision of the new machine will also allow doctors to treat lung cancers, something they couldn’t treat using the older machine.

The addition of the new machine required a total overhaul of the clinic’s vault, which completely encloses the treatment area to prevent the radiation beams from escaping the room. An enormous, nearly foot-thick door leads into the room, but once inside, it resembles a spa more than a vault.

The hardwood floors, bright colors and orchids help make the room look a little less clinical and put patients at ease, said radiation therapist Kaanoi De Coito, and that’s ultimately what the whole upgrade was about.

“I just think this is an amazing thing for Hilo. It gives us a huge advantage. A lot of people would have just gone to Oahu. But this shows them they’re in good hands, and we’re so proud of it,” she said.

“This is one of many steps we’ll be taking this year to improve the quality of care for our patients,” Leach added. “This is, obviously, just a very big step.”

While Hilo Medical Center was in early preparations before purchasing the TrueBeam in 2011, hospital physicists assessed the center’s vault to see if it could handle the higher-energy radiation emitted by the new machine. During that assessment, they discovered two areas that could have potentially allowed small leaks. Later tests found that any possible exposure to people outside the vault would have been negligible, and use of the old machine continued until March, when installation of the new one began.

During the installation process, oncology patients were driven to Kona Community Hospital’s radiation oncology clinic.

Email Colin M. Stewart at

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