Skin zapper helps treat skin cancer without surgery

"It was right in my right ear, it was like four little spots," said skin cancer patient L.J. Hauss.

When Hauss was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, the first option was surgery.

"He said you could do an operation with a skin graft and that would take a long time to heal," said Hauss.

Instead, Hauss' doctors turned an alternative for treating common types of carcinoma. It's a form of precisely targeted radiation known as brachytherapy, which normally involves the placement radioactive pellets near the site of the cancer. But Sachin Kamath, M.D., from Diablo Valley Oncology, says this system, called Axxent, works differently.

"Instead of using a radio isotope, that actually constantly emits radiation this is actually a miniaturized X-ray tube that will actually give off X-rays with push of a button," said Kamath.

Kamath says the lower energy radiation can be delivered directly onto the skin, with a minimal chance of spill over into adjacent tissue.

"It's very important that I place this applicator right up against the area where the cancer is, so we can treat it and not nothing else that doesn't need radiation," said Kamath.

The procedure is typically limited to non-melanoma cancers, such as squamous and basal cell carcinoma -- the most common form of skin cancer. And researchers say it's most effective for use on lesions located near the surface of the skin.

For years the gold standard for skin cancer treatment has been a procedure called Mohs surgery. The technique that tests tissue samples as the surgery progresses, ensuring that no cancer cells are left behind.

"Meaning, only two patients in 100 will have a reoccurrence of the cancer," said Sara Arron, M.D., Ph.D.

Arron is chief of the high risk skin cancer program at UCSF and a trained Mohs surgeon. She says Mohs has a cure rate of up to 99 percent and believes it's still the best option for many skin cancers.

"When a patient is deciding what type of treatment they want to pursue, they should talk with their doctor about the specific cancer type that they have, because the potential of that cancer reoccurring could be more significant in a high-risk squamous cell carcinoma than with a very small, superficial, basal cell carcinoma," said Arron.

Still, manufacturers of the Axxent system say it produces similar results for lesions no deeper than five millimeters and it also offers cosmetic advantages.

"The way I present this is that this is good option or a good alternative," said Kamath.

The procedure itself takes about five minutes, with patients like Hauss returning for sessions at least twice a week for two to three weeks.

"They said there was no pain involved and it wouldn't take long and so all those sounded good," said Hauss.

The Axxent system is manufactured by Sunnyvale based Xoft. The treatments are covered by Medicare and most insurance plans.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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