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Opera Star Sings the Praises of Gamma Knife Radiosurgery

June 08, 2010

The first inkling Zheng Cao had that something was wrong was during the world premier of the opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The 43-year-old celebrated mezzo-soprano was on stage in San Francisco singing the lead, when she fell and injured her neck and left shoulder.

As most professional artists do, Cao (pronounced "Chow") picked herself up and kept on performing. In fact, she continued singing every night after that, taking medication to lessen the discomfort from her fall. When Cao returned to the Bay Area after several worldwide singing engagements, her injury had not improved. In fact, it had become even more painful. Thinking she had some type of spine problem, she visited her doctor.

"I was shocked when the doctor told me I had stage IV lung cancer with tumors that had spread to many places throughout my body," relates Cao.

The devastating news wasn’t over. The following week, Zheng had a brain scan, which revealed 24 small tumors in her brain.

"It was crazy because, other than the neck and shoulder pain, I had no symptoms," she continues. "In those few days last April, my entire life changed."

Immediate Action Needed

It was imperative that Cao’s treatment begin as soon as possible, and treating the brain tumors was one of the top priorities. That’s when she became acquainted with another internationally recognized individual, radiation oncologist David Larson, MD, PhD, co-medical director of the Gamma Knife program at Washington Hospital. Larson, together with the program’s co-medical director, neurosurgeon Sandeep Kunwar, MD, have accumulated more than 30 years of experience using advanced technologies like the Gamma Knife to treat many brain tumors non-invasively with excellent results.

"Cao’s condition was extremely serious. Essentially, everywhere you looked, there were tumors," says Larson. "Besides the state of her health, we kept in mind her needs as a performer. So, we had to do everything we could to avoid the side effects of treatment that often result from whole brain radiation therapy, which might have been the treatment of choice considering the large number of tumors."

Common side effects from whole brain radiation include hair loss, memory loss and damage to other healthy tissues in the head and neck. In Cao’s case, avoiding damage to the vocal chords was imperative. For these and other reasons, Dr. Larson recommended radiosurgery using the Gamma Knife.
Incision-Free Surgery

The Leksell Gamma Knife® PERFEXION™ at Washington Hospital is the gold standard worldwide for non-invasive, radiosurgical treatment of many conditions involving the head and neck. Despite its name, this powerful technology does not require a surgical incision. With a Gamma Knife, many brain tumors can be destroyed with just one treatment. The procedure is essentially painless, and the patient can return home the same day.

Gamma Knife radiosurgery was performed on Cao in May 2009 at Washington Hospital during a session lasting more than five hours. The treatment took longer than usual because of the large number of tumors.

"Dr. Larson was careful to explain the entire procedure to me, but I think I was still in shock from the news about my diagnosis, and I felt nervous," recalls Cao. "But, the experience was amazingly efficient and painless. Everyone at the hospital, including the doctors, nurses and other staff, were so wonderful. I was able to go home and return to my usual activities that same day."
Tumors Made Barely Visible

Following treatment, brain scans were performed to assess the results. After six months, Larson and Kunwar were delighted to report that all the tumors had shrunk. A recent brain scan showed 16 of the 24 tumors had disappeared, and the remaining eight were barely visible.

"Since Cao’s treatment, her memory and neurologic functioning have remained completely intact," says Larson. "This shows we can treat a large number of brain tumors efficiently and safely with the Gamma Knife. It is the only radiosurgical apparatus that can be so effective without excessively irradiating normal brain tissue."

Although Cao has unique needs because of her profession, Larson explains that the specialized care she received would be the same for every patient who comes to Washington Hospital for Gamma Knife treatment, no matter what their profession or the stage of life.

Since last spring, Zheng has continued her cancer treatment. Many of the tumors have been eradicated, and the rest are under control. She is currently on daily chemotherapy for her lung cancer.

Amazingly, Cao has continued to sing at concerts and make other local appearances throughout this time, although she curtailed her opera performances. Now, she is feeling well enough to resume singing opera, and this month she will represent the arts of the City of San Francisco at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, China.

"This is an amazing turnaround for me, though I still have a long way to go," she says. "Singing has always brought me happiness. Now, I have gone through an experience in which I thought I could lose everything, including my voice. When I sing today, my friends tell me I sound better than ever, and I truly feel joy every time I perform."

A Better Option

To learn more about the Gamma Knife program at Washington Hospital, please visit www.gammaknifeprogram.com or call toll free: (888) PERFEXION (737-3394) for a referral. This article is also featured in the current issue of Health Signs, a quarterly
magazine published by Washington Hospital Healthcare System.

If you would like to be added to the Health Signs mailing list, please call Washington Hospital's Community Relations Department at (510) 791-3417.

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