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Mum saved by Gamma Knife at the PA

Tuesday 09 March 2021

Without the PA Hospital (PAH) and the unique medical technology known as the Gamma Knife, Sunshine Coast mother Debbie Butler may not have got to see her twin girls grow up.

Debbie's journey began in 2017 when she first noticed a melanoma on her chest which had been monitored for changes for many years had become scaly. After having it removed and diagnosed as being at stage 1B, the melanoma would come back in 2019 in her rib and lungs.

The tumours were initially treated with targeted therapy before coming back, this time, even more frighteningly, also in her brain.

Fortunately for the mum to eight-year-old twins Hannah and Gemma, she was able to be treated by state of the art Gamma Knife technology at the PA Hospital's Gamma Knife Centre of Queensland after her treatment team on the Sunshine Coast consulted with oncologists at the PA.

Debbie alongside her partner Adrian and twin daughters Hannah and Gemma

The Gamma Knife (a machine capable of destroying tumours with sub-millimetre accuracy, leaving healthy tissue unharmed) was installed by the Queensland Government in 2015 but received a significant upgrade in 2018 thanks to a significant donation to the PA Research Foundation which allowed it to be able to effectively help treat more patients including those with metastasized melanomas like Debbie. The PA Research Foundation also funded a research assistant who was part of Debbie's treatment team.

"It was when COVID was just starting (in March 2020), and at that stage, I had two very tiny mets (metastatic tumours/lesions) in my brain and they wanted to do gamma knife radiosurgery on the mets," she said.

"We got an MRI and my two mets were now six, and they'd grown, they'd probably doubled in size. Two weeks later, I was at the PA having them treated and the PA's the only public hospital in Australia where I could get gamma knife radiosurgery. Gamma Knife and immunotherapy is the gold standard for melanoma brain mets, it's what you want to be treated with."

Making the journey all the more difficult was the fact she had to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

"My partner Adrian had to drive me to Brisbane because you can't drive if you've got cancer in your brain. We had to be there at 6AM so we spent the night there before in a hotel," she said.

"My family couldn't be with me in the hospital because of CoVID-19. My partner couldn't take the girls to a park, or to the hospital to be with me, and he couldn't take them to visit a friend because at that stage where we all in lockdown, you couldn't visit friends.

After coming to the PA in April, she was told by her treatment team that had one of her lesions grown any more, it would have been inoperable.

"It was very scary, the oncologist came out and had a talk to me about how much they'd grown, how aggressive my cancer was," she said.

"But they screwed the frame to my head, put me into the Gamma Knife machine, and began treating my mets."

After surgery, Debbie returned home to the Sunshine Coast, where she would have to return to hospital that same night with swelling on the brain. However, after initial concerns from doctors that the Gamma Knife surgery had been unsuccessful, the PA Hospital was able to allay her fears.

"At one stage, I lost a lot of cognitive function. I couldn't read or use my phone. I couldn't remember my children's birth date or tell you what month of the year came after May. I knew there was a month and it started with a J, but I didn't know what it was called," she said.

"My medical team on the Sunshine Coast ordered tests and the MRI done at the Nambour Hospital suggested the surgery had not been successful and my mets were growing, that they were larger. I was referred back to the PA Hospital to see if they could do anything else.

"The PA team brought me back to Brisbane for a FET PET scan, it's better than an MRI because the tracer used in a FET PET Scan only shows cancer. The FET PET report from the PA identified it wasn't disease progression. The treatment had been successful, and my difficulties were caused by oedema.

"After about four weeks, the cognitive decline turned around, and slowly I started to be able to read again. I could work the words out by spelling them out loud. It was a great relief and now I'm almost back to normal."

"It was a tough time and it was tough on our children. They could certainly see my decline. I couldn't read to them anymore. I would tell them things that didn't make sense. For a couple of weeks there I could barely get out of bed. They had to give up ballet, swimming, and tutoring because Mummy couldn't take them, and Dad was at work. It certainly was a big change for them, but I tell you what, we're all so happy that my cancer is gone."

After facing a terrifying prognosis of three to four months left to live, Debbie is now currently cancer free thanks to the gold standard treatment of Gamma Knife and Immunotherapy. Her profound response to treatment means the likelihood of recurrence is very low.

"I just think it's great that you've helped provide that equipment for the hospital. It saved my life."

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