Proton therapy, or proton beam therapy, is a type of radiation therapy. Protons are used instead of x-rays to treat cancer. A proton is a positively charged particle, which when at high energy, can treat cancer cells. Proton therapy can be used alone to treat cancer, or combined with other treatments like chemotherapy, surgery, immunotherapy and more.
Proton therapy is a viable option for many cancers, as the treatment itself is painless and can be done in a non-invasive manner. However, some side effects may occur after undergoing proton therapy, such as skin irritation, hair loss or even headaches.
How Does It Work?
Proton therapy uses high-powered energy to treat a range of cancer and non-cancerous tumours. It makes use of protons as opposed to traditional radiation which uses x-rays. Protons, which are positively charged particles, can destroy cancer cells at high energy. The energy created by the high speed of the protons, allows the protons to travel through the cells to the desired depth in the body, giving the radiation directly into the tumour.
The stream of protons emitted from a special device are focussed by a large magnet into a beam just 5 millimetres wide. The magnet directs the beam to the tumour from a number of angles and the energy within the beam can be adjusted depending on the depth and position of the tumour. The DNA of the tumour is damaged by the radiation from the protons, resulting in the tumour being unable to repair itself. As a result, it stops growing and shrinks.
What Types of Cancers Can Be Treated with Proton Therapy?
Proton therapy is a viable treatment for cancers that are not near (nor spread to) important parts of the body. Examples of cancers treatable with proton therapy include forms of central nervous system tumours, such as chordomas, chondrosarcomas and malignant meningiomas. Proton therapy is also used to treat other cancers like:
- Eye melanomas (uveal and choroidal)
- Liver cancer
- Lymphomas (Hodgkins and Non-Hodgkins)
- Lung (small cell and non-small cell types)
- Pituitary gland and thyroid
It can also treat tumours affecting the spine and tumours at the base of the skull.
Another important use of proton therapy is to treat tumours in children as it has a potentially less harmful impact on healthy, growing tissues.
A number of sarcomas including bone, chondrosarcoma and Ewings sarcoma are also responsive to proton therapy. Head and neck cancers are also treatable using proton therapy. These include larynx, sinus, tonsil and throat cancers. In these cases, proton therapy it is often the preferred approach due to the challenging location. Similarly, stomach cancers and other forms of gastrointestinal cancers are often treated with proton therapy due to its ability for accuracy and less side effects.
Proton Therapy can treat malignant as well as benign forms of cancer.
It may be used on its own or in combination with other cancer interventions such as surgery and chemotherapy, immunotherapy and traditional x-ray radiation.
What Can I Expect When I Undertake Proton Therapy?
Proton therapy is usually given in an outpatient setting which makes it economical. The number of treatments given depends on the stage and type of cancer being treated.
Before Undergoing Treatment
Before undertaking the therapy, you may need to have a CT scan (computed tomography) or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. This is to work out which part of your body needs to be treated and how best to get to the tumour with the proton beams. Further CT scans may be needed to see if the therapy is working and if needs be, to re-evaluate the dose and recalculate if necessary.
During Proton Therapy
It is important to be still while the scan is in progress, which means you may be fitted with a painless device to reduce movement. It is usually performed without anaesthesia although children undergoing the therapy may need sedation to ensure they remain still during the procedure.
As with x-ray radiation therapy, you will need to lie on a table while your doctor decides where the therapy will be given and to make certain not to radiate healthy areas. Depending on where the tumour is, you may also have the therapy while sitting in a chair.
Proton therapy is sometimes delivered via a machine that rotates around you so that the tumour can be radiated from a number of angles. The health professionals leave the room while the therapy is in process, but they will still be able to monitor and communicate with you at all times. It only takes about 15 to 45 minutes depending on the tumour and its position. When the therapy is completed, you can go about your normal activities for the day.
Possible Side Effects After
Most importantly, the therapy is totally painless. No cuts or needles are required as it delivers the radiation directly through the skin via a machine which sits outside the body.
There are also fewer side effects to proton therapy as it can target the abnormal cells more accurately and does not continue to transfer radiation doses as it leaves the body, as is the case with x-ray radiation and it can be better targeted to the tumour itself. However, it can cause some side effects as it doesn’t completely evade normal tissue. For example, you may experience:
- Skin problems: redness, swelling, irritation, dryness and even blistering and peeling
- Hair loss around the treated area
- Digestion problems
The side effects may take time to develop after the therapy.
Is Proton Therapy safe?
Proton therapy appears to be safer than traditional x-ray radiation which can slightly increase the risk of secondary cancer in the body’s organs.
Is Proton Therapy Widely Available?
While proton therapy has been shown to be promising to treat both early stage and advanced cancers, it is not yet widely available and there are not many studies that have actually compared proton radiation and X-ray radiation. Proton therapy, furthermore, is more expensive than x-ray radiation as the equipment used is more costly and complex. Speak to your health professional to understand the costs you could incur. GlobMed, however, is able to help you navigate the options and to help you to identify the best and most cost-effective way forward.
The consultants at GlobMed have worked with both the NHS and private health care services for decades. Getting a cancer diagnosis can be scary and you will need support to help you navigate the health care system to get the best treatment possible. We know where the best professionals are to help advise you as how to manage your journey and acquire the right treatment for your specific needs. We work hard to find you something that is effective and tailored for your specific needs. This include helping you find the service and care you receive that is within your budget. Everyone deserves a healthy and happy body, and we do what we can to help you get healthier.