The episode started in 2009 when Johnson, who was a laborer for Local 81, had lung cancer and the disease metastasized to his brain. He didn’t notice at first, but his co-workers did when he started dropping things, dragging his foot, handing a clipboard back and forth. They told him to get checked out.
In 2011, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and treated at Methodist Hospitals Southlake Campus in Merrillville with a Gamma Knife, a radiation device that uses radiosurgery to target tumors and other malformations in the head.
Seven-and-a-half years later, he found himself back at the hospital. Another tumor had shown up, caught by a routine scan.
In January, Methodist had gotten an updated Gamma Knife, a $3.5-million investment. The new machine is smaller and less confining than the old one, providers there say, and more automated. It treats tumors up to 3 centimeters in diameter.
For the treatment late last month, Johnson was in and out of the hospital in five hours, in the machine itself for only about 20 minutes. During that time, the 65-year-old could talk to the staff and listen to music. He said he didn’t experience any pain or irritation.
“I could have gone golfing that day. My wife didn’t let me go, but I wanted to go,” he said. “My appetite was good. I went straight to eat after I left.”
“Rather than the whole brain getting a low dose, the tumor gets a high dose,” said Dr. Jeffrey Quackenbush, a radiation oncologist with Porter Regional Hospital, which uses a linear accelerator for stereotactic radiosurgery. He said the device can treat other parts of the body as well.
He notes that while these technologies come with a small risk of radionecrosis, or tissue death from the radiation, he expects them to become even more refined and precise over time.
Community Healthcare System has a similar device, a CyberKnife, at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago.
“CyberKnife is more diverse in that it’s used for any location in the body that might benefit from surgical alternatives,” said Elise Sims, a spokeswoman for Community Healthcare System.
Dr. Hayder Jaffer, a Methodist Hospitals neurosurgeon who helped treat Johnson, said the “goal is to customize the treatment perfectly fit for our patients.”
Jaffer noted that diagnostic tools are getting more advanced, so physicians are catching cancer earlier, allowing them to treat it with devices like the Gamma Knife rather than with surgery. The former is cheaper and comes with less risk of infection, bleeding or other complications. It’s done on an outpatient basis; a craniotomy, by comparison, requires about a five-to-10-day hospital stay.
Besides tumors, the devices are used for vascular malformations and diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson’s.
The treatments are exact down to the tenth-of-a-millimeter, and can go after up to four lesions at a time.
“You’re preserving all the healthy brain tissue,” said Sarah Baran, the Gamma Knife nurse for Methodist Hospitals.
As for Johnson, who has an adult son and two grandkids, he comes back for a follow-up MRI in three months. But, as of now, he’s in the clear.
“I played golf one day and came home and cut the lawn and the neighbor’s,” he said. “I still have energy.”