Caregiver finally focuses on self, finds minimally invasive treatment for back pain

October 5, 2023 Providence News Team

Radiofrequency ablation: Cancer diagnosis leads to life-improving procedure

OLYMPIA -- Like so many of us, Laurie White spends her time caring for others more than worrying about herself. For more than 30 years she’s worked in healthcare, as a nursing assistant before becoming an RN nearly 20 years ago.  

The mother of a grown daughter and 3-year-old English Bulldog named Tucker, Laurie was always worried about others’ needs. Even when she injured her back in 2006, she just pushed through. The pain got worse, she got dizzy, she fell … she pushed through.

“As humans, we adapt and that’s what I did,” Laurie says. “I knew better, but I just figured out how to cope.”

Then in June of last year she felt an extra firmness in her breast. By August, she knew it was a mass. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and cancer lesions were found on her spine – that explained the back pain. She was finally forced to do something.

“I didn’t want to do anything that was too invasive,” she said. “If I was going to have to deal with chemo, I didn’t want to have to deal with anything else too much.”

That’s when she talked to a friend at work. She learned about radiofrequency ablation (RFA) of the spine, one of many interventional radiology procedures done at Providence St. Peter Hospital. Patient’s are evaluated pre-procedure in the Interventional Radiology Clinic at St. Peter.

Radiofrequency ablation: Minimally invasive treatment you may never have heard of

Even as a long-time nurse, Laurie had to research RFA. In her case, Interventional Radiologist Evert-Jan Verschuyl inserted two x-ray guided needles into her spine that created heat by using radiofrequency. The procedure essentially burns the nerves in the area to virtually eliminate the pain being caused by the tumors.

Then, through the same small access canula’s, a catheter with a kyphoplasty balloon created spaces inside the vertebral body. The balloon is removed, and a small amount of cement injected into Laurie’s spinal compression fractures/tumors. After 15 minutes, all that remains is two small marks on the skin. 

“Because it’s so minimally invasive, recovery tends to be very quick,” said Dr. Verschuyl. “It’s been true for Laurie and works well on many other patients.”

Many elderly patients with osteoporosis and painful vertebral compression fractures have benefited from kyphoplasty as well, because of the limited impact on the body, and relatively easy and quick recovery. Kyphoplasty in combination with RFA can be very effective in patients with painful compression fractures due to metastatic disease or other tumors of the spine.  

“There’s really a lack of awareness out there for our ability to help people, most patients we see in the IR Clinic had never heard of it before,” said Dr. Verschuyl. “It’s not for every fracture and careful evaluation is needed, but there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of raising awareness in our community. The mortality, morbidity and psycho-social consequences of untreated painful compression fractures is very high.”

I wish I would have known sooner

Laurie used to live in pain every day. Since her procedure, she says her pain is down by 60 percent and she’s only limped “three or four times” in the past three months. She’s actually learning all the ways she adapted to back pain, and now doing things “normally.” She can stand to put her pants on (doesn’t have to lean on something or sit in a chair); she can walk up stairs by only having to put one foot on each stair instead of both; she can get down on the floor and play with Tucker.

She’s been going to physical therapy and getting stronger, and her balance has improved.

“I’m able to do so many things that I wasn’t able to do before,” she says. “The procedure has done wonders. My function and ability have improved dramatically.”

Her words of wisdom: “I would recommend this to anyone. Had I known about it, I would have done it years ago.”

For more information or for a referral to an interventional radiologist talk to your primary care provider.

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