"You think 'cancer, I'm gonna die,'" but local woman 'flushing' away cancer without traditional chemo, radiation

WAUWATOSA (WITI) -- It's a way to kill cancer cells without traditional chemotherapy or radiation.  The best way to describe it might be giving your organs a hot bath.

Sandy Hansen-Harsh was on the operating table three years ago.  She had just been diagnosed with appendix cancer.  70% percent of her abdomen was filled with cancerous fluid.

"I do remember just being so incredibly frightened. You think 'cancer, I'm gonna die,'" said Hansen-Harsh.

At Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, surgical oncologist Dr. Kiran Turaga found ten pounds of cancerous fluid in Sandy's body.  He saved her life with a procedure called HIPEC.

HIPEC stands for hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemoperfusion.  It's an alternative to traditional chemotherapy.  HIPEC is for patients with cancer on the outside of their organs, instead of on the inside.  Often these patients have colon cancer or stomach cancer and were told they have only months to live.

"They're told to go home from the ER and die in peace.  Many times it's actually misinformation from the physicians and the providers," said Dr. Turaga.

HIPEC is a seek and destroy mission.  The surgery itself can last eight hours.  It was once considered high-risk, but is now being done safely in southeastern Wisconsin.

It starts with the operating team removing all the surface cancer they can see.  Then, they pump 108° chemo drugs through the body for 90 minutes.

"It's very fast -- about a liter a minute of flow.  It just kind of runs inside the abdomen, washes and bathes all the cells.  What it does is it actually kills the microscopic cells that we cannot see during the surgery," said Dr. Turaga.

While the chemo drugs pump through the body, the surgical team shakes the patient's abdomen, so the fluid is distributed to all its quadrants.  The chemo drugs penetrate two millimeters into the organs, preserving the rest.

"In terms of having that amount of chemotherapy sloshed around in my body, no, I couldn't really tell," said Sandy.

Sandy spent three weeks at Froedtert Hospital in recovery.  She says she had some symptoms of chemotherapy, such as losing taste and her hair.  Dr. Turaga says those side effects are rare.  Three years later, Sandy's cancer hasn't come back.