Man Has Second Chance Thanks To Tiny Radioactive Beads

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

In July 2006, Doug Waldron thought he had six weeks to live when doctors found an 8-inch inoperable tumor on the top of his liver. His odds were against him—liver cancer claims the lives of 86 percent of those diagnosed each year.

Waldron didn’t anticipate seeing his grandchildren at Christmas, traveling to Michigan to spend time with family, or celebrating his 38-year wedding anniversary with his wife, Diane. Now, thanks to a fighting attitude and a small vial of radioactive beads, he is living proof that anything is possible.

The large tumor, roughly the length of a pencil, could have claimed Waldron’s life, but one small vial of radioactive glass beads, or microspheres, reduced its size by 97 percent, one of the rarest liver tumor cases documented in the country. The tiny beads carry high doses of radiation—yttrium-90—to kill cancerous tumors within the liver.


Riad Salem, MD, an interventional radiologist and director of interventional oncology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, injected six million of the tiny glass bead-like microspheres into Waldron’s tumor through a catheter and a small incision, a minimally-invasive technique called radioembolization, or intra-arterial brachytherapy. The targeted-treatment allows for a higher, local dose of radiation to be used, without subjecting healthy tissue in the body to the radiation.

“The secret to the beads’ success is their ability to deliver bigger, more potent doses of radiation to the tumor. Because the radiation travels only 2.5 mm in tissue, healthy tissue is spared despite this high concentration of radiation,” says Dr. Salem.

Northwestern Memorial was one of the first hospitals to offer this minimally invasive treatment in 2001. Today, interventional radiologists there have the most experience in the world with this new technology, performing around 300 microsphere treatments each year—more than any other facility.

“Radioembolization is one of the newer, highly effective treatments for primary and metastatic liver tumors,” says Mary Mulcahy, MD, oncologist at Northwestern Memorial. “Many patients are unaware of this treatment option, which can prolong and improve the quality of life for the growing number of people who are diagnosed with liver cancer.”

Waldron is thankful his quality of life has been restored and he is able to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren. “It’s a miracle,” he notes. “These beads gave me back my life and I’m very grateful.”



IS this treatment available for cancer and cirrhosis patients?