What Is Proton Beam Therapy?

Proton beam therapy is a high-precision radiation treatment used to treat cancers. Compared to radiation therapy, which uses x-rays to kill cancer cells, proton beam therapy uses positively charged particles called protons. This treatment uses precision to target the tumour, reducing damage to healthy surrounding tissues, organs and other vital structures. Due to this, the side effects observed after a proton beam therapy treatment are far lesser than what is seen with radiation therapy. 

This treatment is highly effective in treating certain types of cancer, such as complex tumours of the brain, upper part of the spinal cord and some head and neck cancers, where surgery and radiation therapy can be challenging.

Your doctor and healthcare team choose between proton beam therapy and external radiation therapy.

Types of Cancers Treated With Proton Beam Therapy

Proton beam therapy is used only in certain types of cancers. These include:

  • Head and neck cancers
  • Brain cancers
  • Spinal tumours
  • Paediatric cancers

It is increasingly being used in treating other cancers like:

  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Sarcomas
  • Liver cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Benign tumours

Who Is A Candidate For Proton Beam Therapy?

Despite the many advantages of using proton beam therapy, it is not recommended for all cancer patients. This treatment is suitable for children, teenagers and young adults as it reduces damage to developing cells and prevents long term issues. In adults, proton beam therapy is used to treat cancers in the following scenarios: 

  • Cancers that are difficult to treat
  • Cancers located in places where conventional radiation therapy may cause tissue damage
  • High risk of late effects from standard cancer treatments
  • Cancers that do not respond to traditional radiation therapy or when a high dose of radiation is needed
  • Recurrence of cancer after conventional radiation therapy

 

In some cases, proton beam therapy may be used with other standard treatment options. Your doctor and healthcare team will evaluate your cancer and determine if you are a candidate for proton beam therapy.

Proton Beam Therapy Procedure

Proton beam therapy is an outpatient procedure, and you may need several sessions based on your cancer type. This treatment involves careful planning to make sure the proton beam hits its target. Before each session, you might undergo imaging tests such as computed tomography or MRI to provide pictures of the tumour and the surrounding area. The therapy team might create temporary marks on your body to highlight the treatment area.

The proton treatment takes place in a designated room that may contain a long mechanical arm (called a gantry) to enable radiation therapists to treat the tumour from several angles.

Depending on the size, location and number of tumours, you will spend about 15 to 30 minutes in the treatment room.

Your proton beam therapy involves the following steps:

  • Imaging tests like CT scans and MRIs help your doctor determine the exact location of your tumour and the health of surrounding tissues.
  • Before your session in the special room, your healthcare team will position your body so that the proton beam will reach the tumour at the designated spot.
  • You must stay still during the treatment. You will be given a customised mask that helps you hold your head still while enabling you to see and breathe.
  • The entire session will take around 15 to 30 minutes from when you enter until you leave. You will not feel the protons entering your body during the treatment.

Benefits of Using Proton Beam Therapy In Cancer Treatment

Proton beam therapy is often used to substitute radiation therapy due to its following benefits:

  • Precise targeting on the tumour
  • Up to 60% less radiation to surrounding tissues
  • Lower radiation damage to surrounding tissues and structures
  • Higher radiation dosage to delivered to cancer cells, increasing effectiveness of treatment
  • Fewer side effects like fatigue, nausea or reduced blood count

Side Effects of Proton Beam Therapy

Compared to conventional radiation therapy, proton beam therapy causes fewer side effects. The side effects also depend upon the part of the body treated. A few side effects that you may experience are:

  • Tiredness
  • Hair loss
  • Soreness and redness on the skin

 

Most side effects due to proton beam therapy are mild and resolve on their own in a few weeks. In some cases, you may experience late effects of proton beam therapy. Your doctor will discuss the expected side effects before your proton beam therapy procedure. Research is currently ongoing about how the side effects of proton beam therapy can be further reduced.

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There is plenty of research ongoing to study the advantages of proton beam therapy over conventional radiation therapy. Though this treatment is currently being used to treat limited cancers, its use in treating other cancers is still under study. If you have been prescribed to undergo proton beam therapy for your cancer, speak to your doctor.

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