A journey through cryo medicine and one Chinese doctor’s war against cancer
The last time anybody took count was 2008. Five years ago, an estimated 7.6 million people died from cancer. This from the vaunted Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the figure has not been updated since. Whether the number has gone up or down is difficult to verify.
No data is available for cancer deaths worldwide, though a panel of doctors published a report that estimated half a million casualties in the United States last year. It is exacting a grim toll in China as well.
When you factor in pollution, modern lifestyles, and the food choices available to average people—add hereditary risks—cancer is the great epidemic of our time.
Cancer is so pervasive that 40 years of research and innovation have not tamed its lethal nature while, strangely enough, a multitude of therapies are available to check its spread.
Indeed, cancer is so ubiquitous, doctors and scientists can build careers from treating it, dedicating their lives to an impossible fight.
But amid the haze of chemotherapy and withering patients, an exotic method for saving lives is making a difference. This ingenious method used for treating cancer dates to an arcane practice given a fresh spin by daring surgeons.
Physicians down the ages always knew that freezing tissue worked as an anesthetic. Today, doctors and scientists are employing the same technique with hyper-modern tools. The procedure is known as cryoablation. Among medical circles, it is the most exciting and practical way to save lives.
Cryoablation, however, is a newfangled word for the continuous improvement in removing growths, tumors, and lesions. Its original incarnation, cryosurgery, itself lopped under cryotherapy’s broad aegis, used to be a delicate process of applying liquid nitrogen on a lesion, allowing a surgeon to destroy it without harming the patient.
The first great practitioner of modern cryosurgery was an American. In 1961, using an apparatus designed with the help of an engineer, Dr Irving Cooper successfully removed a brain tumor inside a boy’s skull. The operation was one for the record books. The patient could not be sedated so Dr Cooper could tell he was not inadvertently hurting sensitive nerves.
The cryoablation techniques in vogue today evolved over the last 50 years and assumed its most recent form beginning in the 90s. Instrumental to its transformation was the mysterious Dr Setrag Zacarian, an Armenian- American who applied cryosurgery to varied dermatological conditions. Today, cryoablation works as the sum of refined technique and hard science done on a precise scale.
In a nutshell, it involves isolating a tumor by freezing it with argon gas, an element commonly used for industrial purposes. The resulting frozen spheres create an artificial temperature of negative 40 degrees Celsius or lower, killing the affected tissue. At this point the frozen particles are removed and destroyed.
Of course, this is an oversimplified summary of a complex procedure. Cryoablation, however, is not an isolated process.
As medical texts put it, cryoabalation serves as an adjunct to a series of procedures that vary according to the cancer patient’s need. This is because tumors are often very delicately located and compromise vital organs. It is no wonder that the treatment and removal of tumors offers up a colorful history.
The work of Dr Xu Kecheng is no less dramatic. The horrific variety of cancer patients that have sought his help is a testament to his own professional fortitude and devotion.
Yet it took five decades for him to revise his views on cancer treatment. As the president of the Fuda Cancer Hospital in Guangzhou, Dr Xu leads a quietly renowned temple for successful cryoablation—among a suite of various therapies for every known cancer type.
Yet for Dr Xu, his lifelong exposure to the worst effects of cancer has changed his belief on how it should be treated. More than imposing a prescription, Dr Xu has made sure the hospital under his management pursues a holistic approach. On its website (fudahospital.com) a short message explains how “we make it a priority to make sure that each patient receives a personalized treatment plan according to his or her unique situation, and medical and treatment history.”
This approach was essentials to the case involving a massive ovarian cyst on a middle-aged woman named Ximei.
Ximei, who had grown up in rural China, was suffering from an abnormal growth that enlarged her torso to cartoonish proportions. Abandoned by her family and penniless, she sought shelter in a local hospital until her chance acquaintance with Dr Xu. Taking pity on her, Dr Xu promised to treat Ximei free of charge. The sheer size of the problem required surgery on the scale of a medical breakthrough. Nothing quite like it had been done before.
As Dr Xu later recounted in his book, “I consulted a few veteran physicians with more than 40 years of practice.
All of them had never seen such a big abdominal tumor before...we could not tell for sure if we could cure her.” The Fuda Hospital rallied. In the span of 31 days Ximei’s cyst was drained—the collected yellow puss fluid weighed 60 kilograms—until her abdomen had shrunk to its proper size. On the morning of January 12, 2010, Ximei was taken to an operating theater filled with surgeons. Incisions were made. “Finally the cyst was exposed in 15 minutes,” Dr Xu writes. “It was the size of a watermelon with...a large number of cauliflower papilloma.”
The cyst originated in the left ovary. It was removed and its smaller growths were frozen and ‘killed.’ The operation was a success and before month’s end Ximei was home again, ready to start her life anew. Cryoablation had worked a miracle.
But saving cancer patients is not just about surgery. In the notes that formed the basis of his 2010 book Nothing But The Truth as well as his History of Cryosurgery, Dr Xu wanted to make it clear that treating cancer involved more empathy than science. The introduction to a chapter titled Breaking Cancer Culture is particularly revealing. In it, Dr Xu writes, “The first thing doctors are concerned with is the legality of their treatment; whether there is any documented evidence or whether it can be documented. This may not be rational...whether patients would live a better quality of life or whether their lives can be prolonged is of secondary importance.”
Meanwhile, in Fuda, the slow- motion battle rages on.
Print ed: 04/13