Treating Cancer With Protons


Cancer still looms as one of the most dangerous medical conditions that can afflict a person, and several methods for treating cancer already exist in the American medical industry, from X-ray radiation to chemotherapy, but a new form of cancer treatment therapy has emerged, and that is proton beam radiation. Radiation treatment for cancer used to involve dangerous methods, and often still does, but with a proton beam’s synchrotron, this form of radiation treatment for cancer is much lower risk and has fewer side effects than older methods of advanced cancer treatment options. How can proton radiation therapy differ from other methods of radiation treatment for cancer, and how is it safer? Where an a person try this new form of cancer treatment, and what can they expect?

Basics of Proton Treatment

Proton beam therapy differs from other cancer treatments in a number of ways. For one thing, this form of treatment does not cover a large area; it uses only a focused beam that is tightly controlled by doctors. The protons are excited and energized in a device called a synchrotron, which then issues them through a nozzle in a narrow beam that will only affect a very small area where it is targeted. This allows the doctors to use the therapy only on the tumor and other cancerous growths, and not on any other tissue in the body to a significant degree.

How is proton beam therapy safer for patients than any other radiation treatment for cancer? The radiation itself only targets the tumor, and not even the surrounding tissue is affected, let alone the tissues in the rest of the body like with other cancer treatment options. Proton beam therapy has proven itself effective on various special types of cancer such as breast cancer and prostate cancer with very little risk or lasting harm to the patient, if any. For example, researchers have found that patients for prostate cancer therapy with proton beams had 99%, 94%, and 74% rates of having no cancer recurrence after five years for those with low, intermediate, and high risk prostate cancer, respectively. On the topic of prostate cancer, men who have had proton beam therapy used on this cancer reported that they had no risk of impotence afterward at a rate of 94%, when they remained sexually active after their treatment. And when women have breast cancer targeted by proton beam therapy, the beam’s main energy is focused on the tumor itself, and about half the energy penetrates the breast and reaches the heart, a much lower amount than with other radiation methods, lowering the risk for the patient substantially.

The Process

A patient undergoing proton beam therapy will attend several sessions. Each time, the patient will have his or her X-rays taken so that the doctors can find the location, size, and shape of the tumor or cancerous growth, so they know where to apply the beam. Then, the patient is escorted to a specialized room that has the synchrotron, and that patient may sit in a chair or lie down, depending on where the cancer is, and the doctors will adjourn to a nearby room that controls the synchrotron. They and the patient can talk with speakers for the patient’s comfort, and to guide or advise the patient if needed. Then the synchrotron activates, and as long as the patient holds very still, the beam will focus all of its energy only on the cancerous growth, destroying the cancer cells on contact. The beam process takes about two minutes, although the entire medical procedure for one session can last closer to half an hour. The patient will undergo several sessions, each the same, until the growth is gone.

Some minor side effects may be expected after this radiation treatment for cancer is used on a patient. The skin of the affected area may experience redness, blisters, rashes, itchiness, or dryness after the proton beam has been used on it, although many may argue that this is far preferable to the side effects of other cancer treatments like chemotherapy. Currently, a limited number of synchrotrons and their facilities exist, but more are being built all the time. As of 2015, 30 more facilities were being built, with about 80 rooms between them all.

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