A few bad sunburns were the only side effect Norris Sprague experienced during his recent cancer treatment.
“It’s a small price to pay,” said Kris Sprague, his wife.
It all started five years ago when Norris, now 59, noticed a strange whistling sound in his chest. He began to experience shortness of breath and chest pain.
A visit to the doctor soon revealed the cause: a slow-growing cancer in his airway. The endobronchial tumor had become tree-like, with a trunk and deep roots.
The good news? Doctors could remove most of the tumor surgically.
The bad news? They couldn’t get at the roots, so it would definitely grow again.
Norris, who lives on 39 wooded acres near Fremont, Michigan, bided his time before going back for regular checkups.
When the symptoms started up again, he had it checked out.
The tumor had returned. And it had grown bigger.
Norris got a referral to John Egan, MD, an interventional pulmonologist with the Spectrum Health Medical Group pulmonary team.
Dr. Egan worked with a large group of Spectrum Health medical experts who collaborated to bring a unique treatment to West Michigan: photodynamic therapy.
It uses photosensitizing agents and light to kill cancer cells.
Norris’ treatment began at the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion infusion center, where specialists injected into his body photofrin, a photosensitizing agent that would travel through his bloodstream.
Within 48 hours, the medicine had traveled through his entire body, making him ready for the next step.
That’s when Dr. Egan performed a bronchoscopy, sending a fiber optic camera into the airway to find the tumor. The procedure then involved shining a specialized laser onto the affected area to destroy it.
“When the photofrin is exposed to the red wavelength of light, it becomes active and kills the cells where you’re shining light,” Dr. Egan said.
Dr. Egan repeated the process two days later. This removed the remainder of the tumor.
“It goes all the way down to the stump and the roots and kills that part,” he said.
The photofrin that makes this therapy effective also makes the patient incredibly sensitive to light for about six weeks.
Before his treatment started, Norris had an educational session with Christine Burkhard, RN, who gave him a sun-protection kit that included long gloves, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat with a neck flap.
“I gave him a lot of information about what to avoid,” she said. “Not just UV rays outside, but also indoor lights like halogen lights and pen lights.”
Of course, experience is the best teacher.
The Spragues arranged Norris’ therapy so he could still go deer hunting between treatment sessions.
At one outing, Norris learned—painfully—just how sensitive his skin had become.
He had been wearing a mask to cover his neck and face, as well as glasses. He took a minute to light a Coleman lantern.
“Just that fast, his hands burned,” Kris said. “It’s unbelievable how fast he burned so badly. He kinda had to learn the hard way.”
A couple weeks later, Norris wore sun protection into the backyard garden. He took off his gloves for a moment to pick some tomatoes.
“He came in with five tomatoes and hands that turned red like a lobster,” Kris said.
Even working second shift, with only half the lights turned on, Norris developed some temporary skin discoloration.
Despite the temporary sensitivity to light, the Spragues have nothing but gratitude for how well the treatment went.
“We feel blessed,” Kris said. “We’re thankful to God and Dr. Egan and his team.”
Chances are the tumor won’t return, but Norris isn’t quite ready to feel completely comfortable.
“I don’t have to worry anymore, but I probably will,” he said.
Norris became the first patient to receive photodynamic therapy treatment at Spectrum Health—but more will follow, Dr. Egan said.
It’s an effective treatment for cancers, like carcinoid, that are limited to the airway and other tumors that are in situ, which means cancerous cells that have not yet become malignant.
Dr. Egan and his colleague, interventional pulmonologist Gustavo Cumbo-Nacheli, MD, were part of a major, Spectrum Health system-wide joint effort to bring this therapy to the area.
“Cancer doesn’t have a code of ethics, a set of rules or a logical timeline,” Dr. Egan said. “It is this evil, cruel thing that does what it wants to do.
“To beat cancer, we need to think outside the box, to innovate, and to look at what we’ve done and how to do it better.”
Does the sunburn ever stop when exposed?