Doctors use fever to combat pancreatic cancer

The stats are not promising. This year, 37,000 people will get pancreatic cancer, and 34,000 will die from it.

There are few effective treatments, but now doctors are trying to heat things up and kill this deadly disease.

Joe Castelli loves to watch a good battle in the ring, but nothing could prepare this rodeo fan for his own fight with pancreatic cancer.

"I had pain on my side for months," he says.

Joe's future was bleak.

"Everything I read was all gloom and doom. What's my life expectancy? And she said probably a year," he remembers.

That's when he found out about a new therapy that could boost his chances.

"I knew this is what I wanted to do," Joe explains.

Joe is one of the first in the U.S. to take part in a clinical trial that uses fever to kill pancreatic cancer.

"We are using a temperature that you would get if you had a bad case of the flu," explains Dr. Joan Bull, an oncologist in Houston.

Two days after Joe received chemo and immune-boosting drugs, he was put into total-body thermal therapy.

"I like to call it the hot box, and you're in there for eight hours," he explains.

His temperature was carefully monitored as it was raised from 98 degrees to 104 degrees.

"The fever is giving a cry for help to the immune system to say, 'Arm yourself, get out here, do something,'" Dr. Bull explains.

By waking up the immune system, doctors believe less chemo can be more effective. The chemo and the infrared heat increase the body's immunity and help kill cancer cells everywhere.

Joe is in the treatment once a month over a six-month period. The fever can be hard on a patient's heart and lungs and cause severe fatigue. Joe gained ten pounds, has less pain, and renewed hope.

"I'm real optimistic that this is going to keep me alive for a long time," Joe says.

One of Dr. Bull's patients was given a year to live, but after this therapy lived for three-and-a-half years after the diagnosis.

Fever therapy is used successfully in Germany and is also used to treat small cell lung cancer.

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A person's risk of developing pancreatic cancer -- one of the deadliest cancers -- is one in 76. According to the National Cancer Institute, 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients live one year past diagnosis.

The cancer begins in the pancreas, an organ deep in the abdomen that produces insulin and other hormones. One of the reasons this type of cancer is so deadly is because it's usually caught too late.

"Only about 20 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer are even ever considered candidates for surgery because by the time it is diagnosed, the tumor has spread to the point where surgical resection is not an option," David Linehan, M.D., chief of hepatobiliary and pancreatic surgery at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., told Ivanhoe.


Some doctors are wielding a new weapon in the fight against cancer: whole-body hyperthermia. The treatment involves heating the entire body to up to 104 degrees, essentially causing a fever much like one that would accompany a bad case of the flu.

During whole-body hyperthermia, body temperature is raised by using warm-water blankets, inductive coils like those in electric blankets or thermal chambers.

Another type of hyperthermia called localized hyperthermia -- also called thermal ablation -- can also destroy small areas of cancer cells and malignant tumors.

The American Cancer Society says a major of advantage of both whole-body and localized hyperthermia is the fact that they help other forms of cancer treatment work more effectively. Whole-body hyperthermia has been shown to boost the effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy for many types of cancer including small cell lung cancer and pancreatic cancer.

In order for a hyperthermia treatment to work, doctors have to maintain an exact temperature for a certain amount of time. Otherwise, the treatment is ineffective or even dangerous.

Joan Bull, M.D., an oncologist at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston is investigating a combination of whole-body hyperthermia and chemotherapy for the treatment of pancreatic and small cell lung cancer, as well as other neuroendocrine cancers. She reports significant positive results so far.

Before receiving the hyperthermia treatment, patients receive IV fluid for six hours followed by a chemotherapy infusion. Two days after the chemo treatment, the patient's body temperature is carefully raised to 104 degrees using infrared radiant heat and maintained at that temperature for six hours.

The patient receives additional chemotherapy during the hyperthermia process. Throughout the heat treatment, patients are lightly sedated.


Just as fever that accompanies the flu causes unpleasant side effects, whole-body hyperthermia comes with its own. The treatment can cause fatigue, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

More serious side effects include complications of the heart, blood vessels and lungs.


Office of Dr. James Swift
(713) 500-6820

If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Melissa Medalie at

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