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Proton Therapy for Cancer

What Is Proton Therapy?

Proton therapy is an advanced type of radiation therapy used to treat some cancers. Its precise delivery of radiation to the tumor site means there is less risk of damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Why Is Proton Therapy Done?

Proton therapy (also called proton beam therapy) is most commonly used to shrink solid tumors that have not spread to other parts of the body. It's an effective treatment for many childhood cancers, including:

  • sarcomas (cancers that grow in connective tissue )
  • tumors in the head, neck, eyes, and spinal cord
  • lymphomas (cancers that affect lymph nodes)

Proton therapy is sometimes used along with other cancer treatments, such as standard radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, and immunotherapy.

How Does Proton Therapy Work?

Proton therapy uses protons (positively charged particles) instead of X-rays. A special machine speeds up the protons. These high-energy protons can get rid of cancer cells, which makes tumors shrink. Protons are easier to get to a specific location than the X-rays used in standard radiation therapy.

How Is Proton Therapy Different From Radiation Therapy?

The X-ray beams used in standard radiation therapy go beyond the tumor area, sending radiation to healthy areas. This may damage healthy tissue or organs near the tumor.

Proton energy sends higher doses of radiation to the exact tumor site. This helps doctors control and manage cancer while greatly reducing damage to healthy tissue and vital organs.

What Should We Expect From Proton Therapy?

Proton therapy treatment usually takes about 6–8 weeks, with daily weekday visits that last about 30–45 minutes. Most of the time is spent getting the child into the right position for the treatment.

Proton therapy treatment is painless, and doesn't require a hospital stay. Children under 6 years old might need to get general anesthesia to keep them completely still during the treatment.

Are There Any Risks From Proton Therapy?

Because proton therapy targets cancer cells so precisely, it's an excellent treatment option for children with some types of cancer. There's less damage to healthy, developing cells, so there are fewer side effects. This also minimizes late effects — these are long-term side effects, such as learning disabilities, hearing loss, and other problems.

When side effects during therapy do happen, they are usually very mild and can include:

  • tiredness
  • skin irritation
  • hair loss at the treatment site

What Else Should I Know?

Proton therapy is not available at all cancer treatment centers because it uses very expensive specialized equipment. If doctors recommend proton therapy for your child, be sure to talk with your insurance provider to see what is covered.

Reviewed by: Eric S. Sandler, MD
Date Reviewed: Aug 1, 2022

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