Miriam Walter was told she would not survive to see this Christmas when she was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer a year ago.
But thanks to a radical new treatment, which she was first in the country to benefit from, the 72-year-old is feeling "absolutely fine" and looking forward to celebrating summer with her family.
The OncoSil device, developed by an Australian medical technology company, is extending and even saving the lives of patients and has been successfully used at Waikato Hospital three times this year to treat people with locally advanced pancreatic cancer that can not be operated on.
Only 8 per cent of pancreatic cancer patients in New Zealand survive longer than five years and only 10 per cent are diagnosed early enough for surgery - the only curative treatment.
The disease kills more than 500 Kiwis a year and is projected to be the country's fourth-biggest killer by 2025.
The device, recently given regulatory approval in New Zealand, allows micro particles containing radiation to be injected directly into the tumour via an ultrasound-guided endoscopy - a form of brachytherapy.
The full dose of radiation is released from the particles over 80 days and causes much less damage to surrounding organs than standard radiation therapy where a beam of radiation is directed at the cancer from outside the body.
Walter said she went to the doctor when the whites of her eyes became yellow and was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in early November.
"I was told, without any treatment, I probably had about three months to live," she said.
Walter started chemotherapy straight away and was on holiday with her family when Waikato Hospital clinical director of gastroenterology Dr Frank Weilert phoned to tell her about OncoSil in January. By later that month she started receiving the treatment.
"It was just a better option. It was that or do nothing and see what the chemo does," she said.
"I was pretty proud of the fact I picked up the courage to be number one so that others can benefit from it."
Walter said she suffered no side effects and scans showed the tumour had shrunk 73 per cent.
Since then, the tumour had remained stable as she continued her chemotherapy treatment.
"The chemotherapy is what's keeping me how I am. I'm absolutely fine. I'm driving around, going to the shops, going to the beach, socialising with my friends," she said.
"It's not all doom and gloom. Life goes on and that's how it is."
Weilert said that, despite the success, surgery was unlikely to be an option for Walter because of her age and other health issues.
However two to three months after performing the procedure on two other patients, at least one was being considered for surgery although it was too early to make a decision, he said.
"It's obviously quite exciting to do something new. It's more exciting that we've seen good results already," Weilert said.
The history of pancreatic cancer was so "terrible" that patients usually presented with an advanced disease and few were offered surgery.
"For pancreas cancer this is a real promising technology that will give hope to these patients that have very little hope when you get this diagnosis. You get this diagnosis and you plan for your last Christmas often. It's very, very devastating."
Trials had shown the treatment shrunk the tumour to operable size in a quarter of patients and 20 per cent of patients received surgery to completely remove the whole tumour, he said.
Weilert, the only doctor in New Zealand using the device, said the new treatment offered the possibility of a cure or at least an extension of life for patients who were, on average, given six months to live after diagnosis.
"This gives our patients more hope than we've had in recent times with such a devastating cancer," he said.
"The neat thing about OncoSil is that it's beta radiation so it doesn't emit very far from where the device is delivered, preventing collateral damage."
He said the patients treated so far in New Zealand, including Walter, had exhibited few side effects and those they had were consistent with the chemotherapy they were receiving.
Weilert said the device also had the potential to change the current standard of treatment by being given earlier in the treatment process because there was evidence that suggested it improved the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
Gut Cancer Foundation chief executive Liam Willis said, while OncoSil sounded like an interesting concept and appeared to be a novel approach to delivery of radiation therapy, it was still an experimental idea that had not been fully reported on.
He said it appeared to be safe and hold enough promise to take it through to phase three clinical trials which would determine if it was better than the current treatment of chemotherapy and external beam radiotherapy in those with locally advanced pancreatic cancer.
"The Gut Cancer Foundation does not consider this approach as the new standard of care until those studies have been done and risks and benefits better understood."
The patients treated so far had received funding from the company on compassionate grounds but from now on patients would have to fork out about $30,000 for the treatment until the company could get it funded.