Doctors use heated chemotherapy to fight stubborn cancers

August 2017 was when Brenda Gotlen first noticed symptoms of ovarian cancer.

"I was swollen in my abdomen and I looked like I was nine months pregnant," she says.

By the time doctors found it, her cancer had advanced to stage 3. She was the first in her family to be diagnosed with the aggressive form of cancer.

"I was very shocked," she recalls. "I'm like, 'Oh my goodness I'm gonna die.' That was my first thoughts."

Brenda's type of ovarian cancer creates mucus, which had already spread over her internal organs like jelly.

After surgery and six weeks of chemotherapy, Gotlen says her cancer was still present.

"I had a PET scan and when it came back, of course, it lit up like a Christmas tree," she recalls.

That's because it was impossible for the surgeons to remove all of the cancer during surgery.

"Let's say that you prepared yourself a piece of toast and spread it with jelly, and then you try to rake as much of that jelly off of the toast as you can but you just can't get every speck," Gotlen explains.

Doctors told her she'd likely die within a year.

Then Dr. Thomas Rutherford, director of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, offered Gotlen an experimental procedure.

It's called HIPEC, short for Hyperthermic Intra-Peritoneal Chemotherapy, to help melt away that "jelly" in her abdomen.

"I think it's really becoming a rapidly accepted form of treatment," Rutherford says.

The procedure is already being used for other cancers like colo-rectal and mesothelioma. It has more recently been used to treat ovarian cancer and is now being offered at Tampa General Hospital.

 After surgically removing as much cancer as possible, the chemotherapy is heated to 107 degrees and pumped through the abdomen.  

"It's a 90-minute process," Rutherford explains. "It's a one-time treatment so it's done at the time of surgery."

The heat causes lactic acid build up in the cancer cells, allowing the chemo to more readily penetrate,

"The concept is to drive the chemotherapy into the cancer cell... obviously more chemo in the cancer cell, we can kill more of the cancer cells," Dr. Rutherford says.   

HIPEC can cause serious side effects, especially in the kidneys and lungs.

Rutherford says, "Knock on wood, so far not had any long-term complications for this procedure. I've been doing it for now going on seven years."

Brenda says those were risks she was willing to take.

"I woke up the next day and I was in no pain, was not nauseated like I was with the regular chemotherapy," Gotlen says.  

Six months later, Gotlen says, her scans are still clear. 

"My tests came back cancer free!"