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The Origins of Brachytherapy Treatment for Prostate Cancer

September 13, 2012

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I pursued post-graduate studies in France. I chose France for a number of reasons, but one of the important deciding factors was that it was the home of brachytherapy, the treatment of cancer by placing radioactive material directly into the tumour. France was also where Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the radioactive isotope Radium, and where the first clinical applications of Radium to treat cancer occurred. Things have come a long way in the 100 years since these first experiments: we now have much more "user-friendly" isotopes, imaging techniques to guide treatment with precision, and computer programs to plan the exact location, dosage and length of radiation treatment. France was the birthplace of this science.

When I trained at Princess Margaret Hospital in the 1980s, there was very little brachytherapy being practiced, except for treatment of gynecologic cancers where it was already recognized to be an essential part of a curative treatment. So when I returned from France, I took a staff position in Ottawa where my partner and I began a brachytherapy program – a first in Canada – treating cancers of the head and neck, breast, penis, and skin. This "new" treatment was welcomed by both the surgeons and our radiation oncology colleagues in Ottawa because it offered precision which at the time did not exist for external beam radiation treatments. 

Realizing that prostate brachytherapy was the next big frontier, I then accepted a position at my alma mater, Princess Margaret Hospital, with a mandate to establish a program in prostate brachytherapy. Prostate cancer had become the focus of much of my research and to be able to set up a priority program at a world renowned institution was a huge opportunity. It was now or never: my kids were 8 and 10 and I would have to make the move before they got any older.

The decade at Princess Margaret Hospital and the prostate brachytherapy program I established there were hugely successful. But when my kids headed off to university, the opportunity came to move again – B.C. called. Prostate brachytherapy had started here in B.C. about the same time I began the program in Toronto and was fortunate to receive funding. The foresight of the BC Cancer Agency had permitted brachytherapy to be incorporated for all stages of disease, as it of course should be. This was the mecca for a keen brachytherapist wanting once again to exapnd her frontiers. The clean air, friendly people and fabulous outdoors sealed the deal and I moved to Kelowna. More on that next week,