The STAR treatment: South Jordan woman fighting cancer in unique ways

Her focus includes nutrition, newly FDA-approved pain relief procedure

Published: Wednesday, May 14 2014 5:11 p.m. MDT

At one point, Thompson said, she was so weak that she'd put her dirty laundry in a pillowcase and kick it down the hallway to the washing machine, to be cleaned a few pieces at a time. A gallon of milk had to be separated into two pitchers so she could handle pouring it. And the most she could lift was a 15-pound bag of cat food.

Having waded through various possible diagnoses prior to the confirmation that it is cancer, Thompson received few options for treatment along the way.

Thinking she didn't have a choice to get rid of the debilitating tumors throughout her body, she succumbed to months of physically and emotionally exhausting radiation, but her resulting condition led her to think, "Maybe we are treating cancer the wrong way (in America),'" she said.

"Oncology is like the Wild West. Cancer is a disease that is not well understood, and I understand how much is not known about it," Thompson said. "(Doctors) are hoping you're the patient who has the best outcome, but they don't really know."

For someone who was previously physically active, the post-radiation body wasn't cutting it. And on top of the residual pain, Thompson learned that radiation not only wiped out her healing white blood cells, but left her with weakened bones.

STAR, developed by San Jose-based medical device company DFINE, has helped Thompson regain core strength, as her back is more able to straighten without pain. It's enough of an improvement that, even with stage four cancer, she is riding a bike and no longer using the shopping cart she would lean on to get around.

"I've always been a type-A overachiever," she said. "I didn't feel like I was done with the stuff I wanted to do before I die."

Thompson underwent her second STAR procedure at the Utah Vascular Clinic on Friday. Within hours, she was already feeling better.

Through three malleable probes inserted into vertebrae in Thompson's back, Carlisle heated tumors to the point of elimination and then filled the space with cement that solidifies quickly, providing stability to the spine.

Worldwide, DFINE has treated 150 patients with the new procedure, 95 percent of whom report experiencing pain relief, according to the company's website. Thompson is the first person to be treated at the Utah clinic and her procedure was accompanied by a DFINE clinical specialist, as the technology is still relatively new.

The minimally invasive, image-guided cancer therapy, Carlisle said, "is revolutionary."

"The ability to articulate and bend a needle is something I've never seen before," he said. "The robustness within the system to make a curve within a bone is absolutely remarkable."

Metastases may show up again after others have been ablated, as radiation treatment for cancer can weaken the bones and cancers remain in the body. Carlisle said that as long as they're symptomatic and causing problems, they can be ablated, but "it isn't necessary if pain medication takes care of it."

And while Thompson is not the typical patient, given her background in pharmaceuticals and her "phenomenal energy and enthusiasm," Carlisle said, she is the type that "can influence the outcome for other patients."

"When a patient is changed by something in medicine and they become an advocate, they move the ball down the field in a way that an individual physician or group of physicians just can't do," he said. "Michelle is someone like that. She is really changing things for future patients."

Thompson is a participant in a STAR clinical trial at the clinic, but she is responsible for the cost of her surgeries there. When she reached her lifetime radiation limit, she had to find other options to treat her pain, and ultimately, her cancer.

"I have to work on me," she said, adding that she has family histories to write.

For now, though, Thompson is beating the odds and she's loving it.

And, frankly, so are her pets — a 100-pound Akbash dog and what has grown from one to five cats. She is more able to get outside with them. She's exercising more. She's taking care of herself — in more ways than one.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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