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For patients with rare cancerous neuroendocrine tumors, an innovative new treatment is offering hope. Sentara Norfolk General Hospital is the first in Hampton Roads to offer Lutathera, a radioactive targeted therapy to kill cancer cells.

Breakthrough treatment for rare cancer at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital

SNGH is first in Hampton Roads to offer newly-approved radioactive targeted therapy

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For patients with rare cancerous neuroendocrine tumors, an innovative new treatment is offering hope. Sentara Norfolk General Hospital is the first in Hampton Roads to offer Lutathera, a radioactive targeted therapy to kill cancer cells.

The FDA approved the new drug in 2018 to treat neuroendocrine tumors that most commonly occur in the gastrointestinal tract or pancreas. Lutathera helps to slow the growth of the tumors or stops the growth altogether.

The first-of-its-kind treatment is a promising alternative for patients who previously had very limited options if initial treatment failed.

Thomas Hitchens, a 69-year-old from Williamsburg, VA, was the first patient to complete Lutathera treatment at Sentara Healthcare.

Hitchens works in the warehouse at a brewery in Williamsburg and in 2016, he began experiencing painful symptoms and nausea while loading trucks. He went to his doctor and was diagnosed with a metastatic carcinoid tumor, a type of cancerous neuroendocrine tumor which in his case had spread to other parts of his body.

Hitchens was referred to Dr. Edwin Crandley, a radiation oncologist at the Sentara – EVMS Comprehensive Head and Neck Center and the Sentara Cancer Network.

Dr. Crandley offered Hitchens a liver-directed radiation therapy treatment, which he initially responded well to and decreased the size of his liver tumors. But imaging done in the summer of 2018 revealed that the tumors had started to grow again despite the therapy.  

In late 2018, the FDA approved Lutathera as a new treatment option for patients like Thomas Hitchens. When Dr. Crandley told Hitchens about the new treatment, he was eager to be the first patient at Sentara to give it a try.

“I was all for it because I figured even if it didn’t help me it might help someone else,” said Hitchens.

The drug works by binding to a part of a tumor cell.  After binding, the drug allows radiation to enter the cell and causes damage to the tumor cells while limiting radiation exposure to the surrounding healthy tissues.

“Lutathera provides patients with a well-tolerated, effective treatment option once their tumors stop responding to typical frontline therapy,” explained Dr. Crandley. “Mr. Hitchens was an excellent candidate for this treatment.”

Lutathera is delivered as four separate infusions each given eight weeks apart. Hitchens received his first treatment in December 2018 and his final treatment in May 2019.

“His PET scan after treatment in August 2019 showed a fantastic response with significantly decreased signs of disease,” said Dr. Crandley.

Another benefit of the targeted therapy is fewer side effects typically associated with cancer treatment. “I didn’t have any side effects whatsoever,” said Hitchens. “No vomiting, nausea or anything.” 

Hitchens is grateful for his care team and the support he experienced while receiving treatment at Sentara Healthcare. “Dr. Crandley and the whole team are great,” he said. “Whenever I had questions or needed help, they were always there.”

Lutathera is proving to be an effective treatment option to slow the progression of tumor growth and provide patients with a better quality of life. About 8,000 new cases of neuroendocrine cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.

“It’s like a new lease on life that 90% of the cancer is not there anymore,” said Hitchens. “I’ve got hope now and that eases my mind.”