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Cancer treatment goes high tech in Indian country

RAPID CITY, S.D. - A high rate of late-phase cancer in American Indian patients on three South Dakota Reservations has prompted the National Cancer Institute to provide a grant to the Rapid City Regional Hospital.

The $5.4-million grant includes funding for high-tech equipment to treat breast, prostrate and lung cancers in Indian patients from the Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Reservations. The funding will provide six new staff members to assist the program at the hospital and on the three reservations.

The high rate of cancer among American Indians and its later detection lead the University of Wisconsin, the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center and the John T. Vucurevich Cancer Care Institute at Rapid City Regional jointly to research methods of treatment for Indian patients.

The grant will encourage Indian cancer patients to participate in clinical research trials and eventually in accelerated treatment programs. Research from the Spirit of Eagles Program at the Mayo Clinic will interface on the reservation and promote the trials.

"We thank the Rapid City Regional Hospital and the Cancer Institute for this grant," said John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. "The disease affects everyone in the family and many people on our reservation. We are thankful for getting this grant so we can get good treatment in a shorter time. It comes at a good time with IHS cutting back. We have lost a number of our people to cancer."

"This is an important element in our mission statement and our commitment to our many communities ? We are delighted to do this with a partnership with our neighboring reservations," said Adil Ameer, the hospital's president and CEO. "As you know, cancer is one of the leading causes of death in our country. We are indeed privileged to have qualified people who work in our cancer center to provide such an important service."

New technology called "tomotherapy" was developed at the University of Wisconsin and will be available at Rapid City Regional within the next year. The hospital will be one of only eight sites in the world with this technology.

The new treatment utilizes a modification of the CT scan procedure in which radiation therapy can focus on the patient's tumor and not damage the surrounding tissue. The six weeks required to treat breast cancer patients, for example, will be cut to between one and two weeks with new technology, according to Dr. Daniel Petereit, medical director of the Radiation Oncology Center. He said the currently prolonged treatment of cancer might be a barrier for patients coming in during the earlier stages of the disease.

Improved treatment methods aren't the final pieces to the puzzle, however. A telecommunications medical hookup with Mayo Clinic Cancer Research facilities in Rochester, Minn. will provide long-distance patient evaluations.

"We will be investigating potential barriers with a culturally responsive questionnaire to randomly selected American Indians, those with and without cancer," Petereit said. "It looks like there is anecdotal experience that American Indians experience higher radiation side affects. There may be a genetic pre-disposition towards this so there will a study to investigate to see if there is a genetic pre-disposition for developing higher radiation side affects."

"It is our goal to provide cutting-edge research, technology and compassionate care for patients closer to home," Dr. Petereit said.