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Minimizing the side effects of cancer therapy


It’s a familiar struggle to anyone dealing with cancer; the treatments that get rid of the disease can also have serious side effects. Doctors at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) are working to reduce the negative effects of cancer treatment by pinpointing radiation therapy within a millimeter of where the cancer resides.

Karen Curtis has a family history of cancer. The disease took the lives of her mother and sister. When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer last February, she assumed she didn’t have much time to live. “The first time I found out I didn't cry, I didn't have any emotions about it,” she says. “But, then you start going through it and you start losing your hair, and you start losing everything, it's like you're losing your dignity.”

She started treatment at HCI under David Gaffney, MD, PhD, radiation oncologist.

Dr. Gaffney understands how awful the side effects of cancer therapy can be – he was diagnosed with lymphoma more than 30 years ago. “I found myself getting sicker and sicker, and this was in what I call the darker days of chemotherapy, where there were not good medicines to control nausea,” he explains.

Dr. Gaffney beat the cancer and decided to go to medical school. “I think having been a patient, it gave me understanding about what others have been through,” he says.

He says for most cases of advanced cervical cancer (like Karen’s), radiation is the best form of treatment. He used a machine called a linear accelerator to target Karen’s tumor, which she says was an interesting experience. “I kept telling my husband, my life is like a sci -fi movie because you're lying there and there's these machines rotating over you and it's just amazing,” she explains.

The therapy worked and Karen is now cancer-free. She credits her doctors and the advanced technology at HCI for giving her a second chance at life. “Just to survive it is amazing,” she explains. “If it wasn't for them, I don't think I'd be here today.”

Dr. Gaffney says there’s still work to be done in terms of cancer therapy, but it’s an exciting time for cancer medicine. He says, “We want to treat the tumor only and have the patient have no side effects. There are breakthroughs on the horizon.”

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit