Cryotherapy freezes cancer cells while preserving sight

Cryotherapy can help athletes recover quickly after a tough workout, but it also is being used by doctors to kill cancer cells. (MU Health Care)

Three times a year, Bonnie Miller boards a plane in Washington and travels halfway across the country to visit Columbia, Mo.

She looks forward to seeing friends and familiar faces, but her trip has a more important purpose than fellowship. It’s a journey to save her sight and possibly her life.

For 13 years, Miller has fought a rare form of eye cancer called ocular melanoma. Fewer than three thousand Americans are diagnosed each year.

“Up to 45 percent of people die from their melanoma within 10 years, and so it’s considered something we’re relatively aggressive about,” said Rick Fraunfelder, MD, an MU Health Care ophthalmologist.

Fraunfelder is the person Miller makes the long journey to see. He is one of only a handful of ophthalmologists in the U.S. who are trained in cryotherapy.

“Over the years there were found to be a number of therapeutic benefits of freezing things. So, a number of different cryogens were created, all of which have different boiling points,” Fraunfelder said.

During each visit with Miller, Fraunfelder checks her cornea for a patchy, brown pigment called pre-melanoma. If it’s spotted, he freezes the cells using a liquid nitrogen vapor.

“It’s what we call tumoricidal. It’s very good at killing cancer cells. A rapid freeze and a slow thaw are what kills cancer cells,” Fraunfelder said.

Other treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation or removing the eye completely, but thanks to cryotherapy, Miller has been able to keep her eyesight. She believes the long trip from Washington to Missouri is worth it to keep her eye cancer in check.

“I have my grandkids that I’ve watched grow. I’ve gotten to spend time with my wonderful husband. Just the beauty of the world -- There’s so much to see. I would miss all of that,” said Miller.

You can find more information about Dr. Fraunfelder and the Mason Eye Institute at MU Health Care by clicking here.

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