A Glimpse Into Proton Beam Therapy

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There’s a newcomer on the cancer treatment scene and it promises to deliver better results than standard x-ray radiation. Proton beam therapy taps energy from positively charged particles (called protons) to destroy cancer cells. In the United States, it was initially used at a physics research laboratory in 1974 and a hospital-based facility in 1990. Tens of thousands of patients have undergone this type of therapy since.

While availability is still largely limited, more medical centers are recognizing the benefits of proton beam therapy. For one, the protons’ energy directly targets the tumor site, with smaller doses to surrounding healthy tissues. Second, doctors are able to increase the dose to the tumor and more effectively prevent it from spreading or growing, all while keeping radiation damage to normal tissues at the minimum. Third, proton therapy is believed to have fewer and less severe side effects (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and low blood counts) than x-ray radiation. So patients can expect a better quality of life during the course of and after the cancer treatment.

Proton beam therapy can be used on its own or along with x-ray radiation, chemotherapy or surgery. It’s recommended for tumors that have yet to spread and those near critical tissues like the optic nerves. Doctors also find it suitable for children with cancer, as the treatment causes less damage to developing tissues. That includes kids suffering from rare forms of cancers such as those of the brain and spinal cord and of the eye (e.g., orbital rhabdomyosarcoma and retinoblastoma).

So far, proton therapy has been utilized in cases of tumors affecting the central nervous system, and eye, esophageal, head, neck, lung, liver, prostate and rectal cancers. Research into its potential use in other types of cancer is ongoing.

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