COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) - Dread and hope flit through the air of the waiting room like storm clouds and clear blue competing for a place in the sky.
This is a place of last refuge, intractable hope and boundless love, the entrance to a battlefield between cutting-edge science and cancer.
It was here that Beverly Gorman and her husband arrived in January after an urgent 2,400-mile, 60-hour car trip from Olympia, Wash., a trek spurred by a grim diagnosis.
Aurora Bright Star, better known as Chancy, their 8-year-old Gordon setter, had an inoperable brain tumor near her pituitary gland and was given fewer than 90 days to live. Once eager to chase squirrels, Chancy now spent her days lying listlessly on the couch. Over Christmas, she suffered a series of seizures that left her limp.
Then the Gormans' veterinarian, Dan Hicks, told them about Texas A&M's Diagnostic Imaging and Cancer Treatment Center, home to one of the country's two animal TomoTherapy units.
The $3 million machine combines radiation therapy and CT scanning technology to treat tumors once considered untreatable.
After the clinic neurologist called Gorman to say he was at work reviewing Chancy's records — at 9:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve — she knew that's where they had to go.
"I got the feeling they weren't going to give up until they had done everything they could to help Chancy and us," she said. "No matter what, we were going to fight the tumor and the poor outcome with everything possible."
Instead of spraying radiation over the entire tumor area, TomoTherapy produces a beam that zeroes in on diseased areas with near-surgical precision while sparing healthy tissue and organs.
That can make the difference between blindness and sight for dogs like Chancy, whose tumor edged dangerously close to her optic nerve, or the difference between amputation and keeping a limb for dogs like Magnum, a boisterous Great Dane diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma on a front paw.
Most of all, it means that pets like these run around the yard and chase squirrels a few more years.
"We're able to increase the cure rate for these patients, minimize the toxicity with each patient and increase the quality of their life for as long as possible," explained Michael Deveau, the clinic's radiation oncologist.
Before the unit went online last summer, the clinic's equipment was from the 1970s, useless in treating more serious cases. Often, the A&M veterinary oncologists referred patients to out-of-state treatment centers.
Now, the clinic treats seven to 10 patients a week with TomoTherapy.
Nick Vera of Spring took Magnum to the A&M clinic after he discovered a large lump on the 155-pound Great Dane's front paw. It was a soft tissue tumor wrapped around the tendons.
Such tumors contain microscopic, fingerlike projections that burrow deep under the skin and can't be treated with conventional radiation, said Heather Wilson-Robles, a veterinary oncologist. Usually, treatment is amputation.
With TomoTherapy, however, the A&M team was able to treat the microscopic cancers and enough surrounding tissue to halt the spread of the tumor, said Wilson-Robles, who continued to make arrangements for Magnum's treatment even as she was going into labor with her son.
Today, Magnum shows no sign of the disease other than a concave gap on his paw where the mass was removed.
"The way Magnum is, his personality, he's a runner around the yard. We couldn't picture him without a limb," said Vera, as Magnum clomped around a clinic examining room.
The average TomoTherapy treatment regime runs 20 days, and costs about $6,000 to $7,000 for a four-week protocol. The treatment can take less than 12 minutes, but preparation is meticulous and time-consuming.
On treatment day, the patient is hooked up to anesthesia and monitors tracking temperature, breathing and blood pressure, then wheeled into the TomoTherapy room on a gurney.
"We get attached to all our patients," said Deveau. "We owe it to them to provide the best possible care."
A bulletin board in the TomoTherapy control room is crowded with snapshots of patients and ex-patients: dogs (and one cat) pressing their noses toward the camera lens.
One of those former patients is Nutmeg, a golden retriever whose cancer is in remission after being treated for a melanoma in the jaw. Some of her teeth and jawbone had to be removed, but TomoTherapy allowed Nutmeg to retain function and avoid bone damage, said Deveau.
On a recent visit to the clinic, the 2?½-year-old dog nudged her owner, Karan Crooks, out of a chair and plopped herself down in the empty space.
"I lost my mother and my husband, and she was there for me. I needed to be there for her," said Crooks, a Willis resident whose voice cracked as she recounted Nutmeg's illness. "She's my companion. She deserved the right to have a chance for quality of life and longevity."
About 2,400 miles away, another success story is back to chasing squirrels and shadowing her owners' every pace. After four weeks of treatment, Chancy's brain tumor,
while not eliminated, shrank considerably.
"With any luck, she'll outlive the tumor," said Gorman. "I forget some days that she has a tumor. She's back to wagging her tail and being herself, totally herself."
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