Pioneering new thyroid treatment

Jeannine Culham's life with a hyperactive thyroid was not a pleasant one.

"I felt like I was going crazy. I was very shaky, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't put make-up on, I couldn't think straight. I hated everybody and I was very angry," Culham says. "I didn't enjoy life."

But now, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Norman Wong, Culham is hoping for better days ahead.

The doctor has developed a revolutionary technique for treating hyperthyroidism, also known as Graves' Disease. And earlier this month, Culham became the first person in North America to undergo the new procedure.

"This is the first significant breakthrough in the treatment of hyperthyroidism in the last 50 to 60 years," says Dr. Wong, an endocrinologist with the Calgary Health Region and Associate Vice-President of Research and International with the University of Calgary.

Hyperthyroidism is caused by an overactive thyroid gland in the neck, which produces a hormone that controls the body's ability to metabolize food and regulate temperature. It affects about one in 1,000 Canadians, usually women in their reproductive years. Left untreated, Graves' Disease can result in osteoporosis and an increased of risk of heart problems and strokes.

Dr. Wong determined that he could treat the condition by performing an arterial embolization of the thyroid. He started experimenting with this new procedure about three years ago, and conducted a study in China.

Prior to this new procedure, treatment options for hyperthyroidism were limited to surgery to remove part of the gland, radiation therapy to burn out the gland or medication to limit its functions.

The new method is much less invasive than surgery. It involves making a small incision in the groin, inserting a small hollow tube into the arteries and then using X-ray guidance, blocking the arteries that lead to the thyroid with small beads to block the flow of blood.

"We perform many embolization procedures involving the head, neck and brain. We (the entire team) do about 200 per year," explains Dr. Hu, a radiologist who specializes in brain, head and neck imaging and catheter procedures for the brain and neck. "This is the first time we've done the thyroid gland and specifically for this disease. It's a newer application that has limited experience in the world."

Cullam, who was awake during the procedure, took medication to control the disease, but found the drugs didn't work all the time. The Prince George, B.C. woman says she's hopeful this new treatment will give her back her life.

"I won't have to worry about missing a dose of my pills because I won't have to take pills. And if I get into a stressful situation, I won't have to worry because my thyroid works on its own now, so it doesn't need help to stay calm. It will just be good to be back to me"

After just three days of observation and recovery, Culham is ready to go home, where her progress will be monitored by her family doctor.

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