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Breast cancer patient helps make medical history in Minnesota

Bonnie Harris recovered from breast cancer thanks, in part, to the use of innovative new technology.
Bonnie Harris (left) rings a bell to mark the end of her cancer treatment, as Radiation Therapists Rob Hayward (center) and James Kraly (right) look on.

When Bonnie Harris was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2014, she didn’t expect that her cancer treatments would involve a Snoop Dogg soundtrack—nor did she know that she would be helping make medical history in Minnesota.

Bonnie was one of the first patients in the state to be treated entirely with the state-of-the-art Varian TruBeam® machine, which provides highly targeted, efficient radiation therapy treatment. The machine precisely targets areas that need radiation exposure. It’s also designed to invoke the colors and light of aurora borealis, providing for a unique care experience.

“The entire field of cancer treatment is headed toward more precise, targeted and customized treatments for patients—and this technology is another step in that direction,” said Hematologist/Oncologist Ed Greeno, MD, the executive medical director of University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care.

Precise Radiation Treatment
Before Bonnie began radiation treatment, she underwent surgery to have pre-cancerous tissue removed from her breast. Following the procedure, her care team recommended that Bonnie receive daily radiation therapy over the course of six weeks.

Because Bonnie only needed radiation in a very small area, she was an ideal candidate for the Varian Trubeam® technology. For patients who need precise radiation therapy, like Bonnie, a custom plate is designed to the exact dimensions of their radiation site.

"Trubeam's precision and sophisticated imaging technology allowed us to accurately target Bonnie's tumor while protecting her heart and lung from receiving unnecessary radiation exposure,” said Bonnie’s radiation oncologist, Jianling Yuan, MD.

The plate is inserted into the path of the radiation beam, which self-adjusts to the exact dimensions of the opening as the machine moves. In addition to its highly accurate treatments, the machine can also deliver therapies much quicker, reducing appointment times.

“Each patient has a unique setting that is programmed into the machine, to accurately move around the patient, targeting precisely the areas that need radiation exposure, and only those areas,” said James Kraly, an experienced University of Minnesota Cancer Care radiation therapist who cared for Bonnie.

A First in Minnesota
This precision creates a targeted, 3-D delivery method for the radiation therapy—made available to patients for the first time this summer. University of Minnesota Medical Center is one of the first places to offer Varian TruBeam® technology in Minnesota.

To operate the new machine, radiation therapists, including Bonnie’s therapists, James Kraly and Rob Hayward, received special training to learn about the new machine and its capabilities.

Bonnie’s daily trips to University of Minnesota Medical Center were also made easier, thanks to the efforts of the valet crew outside the main hospital entry. The valet drivers are able to accommodate patients with short appointments, and Bonnie was almost always able to leave her vehicle just outside the front entrance, saving her the extra wait time. That small convenience made a big difference for Bonnie, who is a busy, self-employed professional.

One of the most unexpected aspects of Bonnie’s treatment was the musical soundtrack that accompanied some of her radiation therapy visits.

“James and Rob went out of their way to make sure my treatments were as enjoyable as possible,” Bonnie said. “And that included a daily brainstorm about what music to play during my treatments. I never thought I’d be listening to Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” at an 8 a.m. radiation appointment, that’s for sure,” she said, laughing.

In early September, Bonnie celebrated the last day of her treatment with James and Rob with a special tradition in the radiation therapy center; she rang a bell to mark the end of her treatment.