BILLINGS – Call it lucky timing, serendipity, or divine intervention.
But in telling the circumstances surrounding her treatment for a benign tumor growing near her brain stem using new high-tech radiosurgery equipment through St. Vincent Healthcare, Betty Laws said there are threads connecting it all going back more than 30 years.
“There are a lot of coincidences,” she said. “It’s beyond coincidence.”
Less than a month after her first MRI checkup, following three treatments using the CyberKnife, Laws’ tumor hasn’t grown, and she’s hopeful it’ll stay that way. The CyberKnife is a noninvasive radiosurgery device at the Frontier Cancer Center that uses highly focused and intense radiation beams to destroy tumors.
“We don’t know how lucky we are to have this technology here,” she said.
Her journey began in early September 2014 when she took a nasty spill and visited her doctor, which is where the first bit of luck came into play.
A physician’s assistant convinced Laws to have an MRI performed, just to be safe. The scan revealed a benign meningioma, a type of tumor, growing near her brain stem.
Without the MRI, “this would not have been discovered,” said Betty’s husband, Ed Laws.
The next coincidence goes way back, as Laws’ father died from complications of the same type of brain tumor nearly 31 years to the day from her diagnosis.
Having been there with her father throughout the process, she knew a lot about the condition.
The night Laws was diagnosed, a close friend who’d also had a tumor happened to be passing through town and stopped by. The two talked all night about what to expect, helping to ease some of Laws’ fears and giving her an instant bond with the woman over their shared experience.
Earlier in 2014, Laws saw news stories of the CyberKnife coming to Billings, but had no idea she’d need its services just a few months later.
“I saw that story, and I knew it was a big deal then,” she said.
The St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation had announced in April the donation of $4.2 million by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to purchase the CyberKnife for the center, at 1315 Golden Valley Circle, and it went online later that summer.
St. Vincent Healthcare neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Copeland met with Laws to go over treatment soon after her diagnosis.
He’s performed numerous meningioma surgeries throughout the years, but due to the difficult-to-access location of Laws’ tumor, he recommended treatment with the CyberKnife and Dr. Lee McNeely, a radiation oncologist at the Frontier Cancer Center.
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McNeely has, as of Jan. 23, performed 34 surgeries using the CyberKnife. While he said it’s too early in its use to provide accurate success rates, he said it is coming along “as expected” and patients have responded well.
By the end of September she’d started her first of three treatments with the CyberKnife, which ended up being three days of treatment instead of a major surgery and a long recovery.
“Now, five days can be the same as eight weeks of treatment,” McNeely said.
Laws said the treatment itself had no side effects other than maybe feeling a little tired afterward, and she came away impressed and pleased.
“It was a very pleasant experience, considering the uncertainty that comes with a brain tumor,” she said. “Really and truly, the people out there were unbelievable, from the person at the desk to the last person who put me on the bed.”
The treatment uses a robotic arm to zap tumors with intense and focused radiation, digital imaging and targeting software to track patient movements, allowing the robotic arm to move with patient movements and breathing while continuing to pinpoint just the tumor.
Both McNeely and Laws said the CyberKnife isn’t a cure-all and doesn’t apply to every case but has been a boon for some patients, in both the shortened treatment time and in avoiding other surgical options.
Laws also said that it won’t make the tumors disappear.
“While it zaps the tumor, it does not actually destroy the tumor,” she said. “The goal is to kill it, but it will not go away.”
McNeely said it can be used in areas including the spine, lungs, brain and abdomen for some treatments. In addition, the cancer center has booked its first prostate cancer patients for treatment.
“It really has come along as an excellent treatment,” McNeely said.
He encouraged other doctors curious about the technology to contact him or the center for more information.
While Laws still doesn’t have a long-term prognosis on her tumor, she’s hopeful the CyberKnife treatment took care of everything. She has regular checkups scheduled to monitor the tumor and the first one showed it hasn’t grown.
She’s also become, through a long list of coincidences, an advocate for the CyberKnife and the center where it’s used.
“At the time it happened, it was just a wonderful thing to hear, that I can do this right here,” she said. “I hope that everyone knows about it. It’s such a unique and wonderful place.”