Radiation Oncology: Combining Expertise and Compassion
Radiation oncology is a medical specialty that involves the controlled use of high-energy waves and particles to treat cancer — either for cure, or to help reduce pain and suffering that can be caused by cancer. About 60 percent of all cancer patients are treated with radiation at some time during their course of treatment.
Radiation oncologists harness this specialized treatment in a variety of ways, and, because radiation can damage normal cells, it is important that the radiation dose be targeted precisely to the cancer. “We are always refining radiation oncology treatment methods to deliver the highest-quality patient care possible,” says Dr. Kendra Harris, Department of Radiation Oncology interim chairman at Tulane Cancer Center. “We utilize state of the art equipment and the latest strategies to treat tumors aggressively, while reducing or eliminating some of the side effects that accompany radiation treatment. Our goal is precise radiation delivery that spares surrounding healthy tissue, and minimizes side effects and complications.”
Using the analogy of a contractor building a house, Dr. Harris explains her role as a radiation oncologist.
“Radiation is highly technical and complex,” she says. “Just in the same way that three contractors given the same set of house plans might build slightly different houses, radiation oncologists working toward a particular goal make hundreds of decisions along the way to optimally balance maximal damage to the tumor with maximal avoidance of all the healthy tissues.” One of the newest tools in her toolbox is a special kind of treatment, called Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT), which precisely targets tumor cells and delivers treatment over a much shorter time (often one to five days). While it cannot be used in every circumstance, Dr. Harris says this technologically advanced approach is one way to move the goal posts in terms of what can be delivered to patients, offering highly effective treatments in a way that is also convenient for patients.
How Radiation Works
Unlike chemotherapy, which usually exposes the whole body to cancer-fighting drugs, radiation therapy is a localized treatment. By pointing the treatment directly at the cancer, radiation therapy can cure cancers, stop cancer if it does recur and reduce suffering, while leaving surrounding tissues unharmed.
The technology used by radiation oncologists is constantly improving. Recent advances have increased cure rates, while causing fewer short-term and long-term side effects, and treatment can often be delivered over a shorter time period. “Technological advances applied in the right way are the alpha and the omega of radiation therapy,” Dr. Harris says. “These advances have revolutionized what I can do to help patients.” One advanced approach, called intensity modulated radiation therapy, or IMRT, allows much greater tailoring of the treatments, delivering high doses of radiotherapy where it is needed and sparing important adjacent organs. Daily image-guidance — a CT scan daily prior to treatment — allows even further precision by facilitating small daily adjustments to account for tiny differences in patient positioning. Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy is yet another even more advanced approach. Safely delivering this type of treatment is a team effort, let by specialized radiation oncologists, but involving all radiation team members, including physicists.
Compassion is Crucial
While cure remains the primary goal, cancer does not follow the rules. Radiation can be an important tool in these circumstances too, offering relief from specific sources of suffering for patients with advanced cancer.
“I wish I could cure everyone, but reducing suffering is a meaningful and noble goal as well,” Dr. Harris says. Even among patients who can be cured, Dr. Harris says that it has been her experience that often fear is the biggest issue that has to be addressed. “Good, open communication goes a long way,” she says. “I give all my patient’s my cell phone. I encourage them to reach out. We are facing this together, and I want to do everything I can to make sure we limit our worries to what is real. We, as doctors, also must recognize that care coordination and the logistics of the day-to-day affect people’s experiences and their outcomes as well.”
Behind every decision that a radiation oncologist makes, there is a highly qualified team of physicists, radiation therapists, dosimetrists and nurses. “At Tulane, cancer patients have their unique case discussed in weekly conferences with multiple oncology specialists in order to produce the most effective and comprehensive treatment recommendation,” Dr. Harris says. “We tailor our recommendations to each person, often making available access to clinical trials.” The Department of Radiation Oncology at Tulane University School of Medicine is the only university, academic-based radiation oncology department in the city of New Orleans. Consistently taking the lead, Tulane Radiation Oncology provides expertise to the region for the newest radiation oncology treatments and in clinical trials that investigate drugs that sensitize cancer cells to the effects of radiation and make them easier to destroy with radiation therapy. Tulane Radiation Oncology is also a leader when it comes to protective drugs that may help healthy cells recover better after exposure to radiation. Dr. Harris has also pioneered bringing a new trial to the state, which is designed to improve the outcomes for lung cancer patients, using a non-invasive, non-toxic add-on, called the Novocure Lunar trial.
Board-certified in radiation oncology and radiobiology, Dr. Kendra Harris joined Tulane University School of Medicine’s Department of Radiation Oncology in July. After earning a degree from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, she earned her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and completed her residency in the Department of Radiation Oncology and Molecular Radiation Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Kendra Harris, MD MSc
Department of Radiation Oncology
Tulane Cancer Center
150 S. Liberty St.
New Orleans, LA 70112
Clinic: (504) 988-1070
Office: (504) 988-6351
MEDICAL SCHOOL: Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
RESIDENCY: Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Radiation Oncology and Molecular Radiation Sciences
FELLOWSHIP: Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality, Patient Safety