Kathie Kukla started steadily losing weight two years ago.
Initiallly, she viewed the weight loss as a good thing — until she was diagnosed with liver cancer.
“When I read that report, it just absolutely terrified me,” said Kukla, a 65-year-old Sun City resident.
Kukla figured she received a death sentence when she was diagnosed with the same form of liver cancer that killed her sister 20 years ago.
However, thanks to a new treatment at Banner Boswell Medical Center in Sun City, Kukla has received a new lease on life.
Kukla is the hospital’s first patient to receive radioembolization.
The procedure involves implanting tiny resin spheres — about one-third the size of a human hair, filled with Yttrium-90 (Y-90) — into the arteries supplying the liver tumors with blood.
Before, the liver cancer gave Kukla severe diarrhea — she lost about 40 pounds because of it — and would make her flushed, shaky and tired.
“I’ve gained most of the weight back, and I’m back to my life,” Kukla said. “If you would have seen me a year ago, I looked like someone from a refugee camp. Clothes just hung on me.”
The Y-90 treatment is delivered to arteries through a minimally invasive catheter, with precautions taken to spare healthy liver tissue and the rest of the body, said Dr. Gordon Haugland, a radiologist.
For Kukla, the treatment has halted her disease progression, even shrinking some of her tumors.
Originally, she was told the tumors were too numerous to count and she had little viable liver left.
“You could almost see that her liver was being crowded out,” Haugland said of Kukla’s tumors.
Haugland, one of the interventional radiologists performing the procedure at Banner Boswell, said it is important to keep in mind that the radioembolization is not a “miracle” treatment.
It is an option for patients who haven’t responded well to other therapies or who are not candidates for other treatments, including surgery or liver transplantation.
“I still can’t believe I’ve got these funny little ugly things in my liver,” Kukla said. “I feel wonderful. I have no pain.”
Banner Boswell is just one of a handful of hospitals in the Valley offering radioembolization, including Banner Good Samaritan and Banner Desert medical centers.
Haugland said he is excited Boswell is able to offer the treatment since it means patients don’t have to travel across the Valley.
Since the treatment isn’t for everyone and isn’t a substitute for chemotherapy, Haugland suggested patients discuss the treatment with their oncologist.
During the outpatient procedure, patients are lightly sedated while a small catheter is placed in the femoral artery in the groin. Using X-ray guidance, the interventional radiologist advances the catheter to the hepatic (liver) artery. The Y-90 microspheres are then delivered to the liver and float to the tumors via the blood supply. The spheres deliver radiation directly to the tumors for about a week, with the maximal effect occurring about three months after treatment.
“It’s such an easy process for the patient,” Kukla said.
Haugland said Kukla actually received decent results from other treatments and has done well with the radioembolization — her oncologist will continue to monitor her blood work and the size of the tumors, but after two treatments with the Y-90 last July and October, she is stable, Haugland said.
“It’s really well tolerated,” Haugland said of the treatment. “We’re going on the basis of her lab tests now.”
Kukla’s older sister, Ruth, was diagnosed with the same cancer, and died within two years of her diagnosis at age 49. Kukla said watching her suffer was extremely painful.
“They didn’t know what to do for her,” Kukla said. “Nobody knew what to do. Here it is 20 years later and there is absolutely no comparison.”
After her treatment, Kukla said she almost feels guilty that she will live while her sister did not.
“As long as they control the symptoms, I can live a very long time,” Kukla said. “She was absolutely beautiful inside and out. I miss her.”
Kukla’s husband, Mark, said the idea of the treatment is to control and manage the disease. He said he’s glad he has his wife back, and no longer has to worry about her whenever she goes to the bathroom, takes a shower or lies down for a nap.
Haugland said dramatic results with the shrinking tumors do occur, but not in every patient. The doctor said he wants patients to have realistic expectations.
“Her life span, doing absolutely nothing, is probably still a few years,” Haugland said of Kukla.
Kukla said she has a lengthy bucket list of things she wants to do, including see her grandchildren graduate from high school and college, and marry.
“I don’t feel sick,” Kukla said, adding she doesn’t have diet restrictions beyond avoiding alcohol. “I lead a normal life.”
Not only does Kukla feel healthy, she is back to doing activities she loved before she was diagnosed with cancer. That includes regular exercise and playing golf three times a week.
“Everything I did before; it’s just amazing,” she said.
Kukla said she hopes her story can help someone else suffering from cancer.
“I almost feel kind of obligated to pass the word along,” she said. “It’s a good feeling.”