About Proton Therapy

What is proton therapy?

Proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation therapy. This form of radiation therapy uses protons—positively charged atomic particles which can be precisely controlled to release much of their energy directly in the tumor, reducing damage to nearby healthy tissue.1 As a result, patients can receive higher doses and experience far fewer side effects from treatment.1

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How does proton therapy work?

Protons can be manipulated to release their energy at precise depths. Whether the targeted tumor is near the skin surface or deep inside the body, protons are able to deposit much of their energy at the exact tumor site.

The peak of the proton-radiation dose (called the Bragg Peak) is set so it releases the radiation when it hits the tumor; immediately after that point, the dose falls to almost zero. Less radiation reaches the healthy tissue in front of the tumor, and almost none reaches the healthy tissue behind the tumor, resulting in less damage to healthy tissue.1 Patients often experience fewer of the short- and long-term side effects that typically accompany standard radiation.1-7 In addition, because more energy can be deposited directly in the tumor, a higher dose can often be delivered, leading to more effective treatment.1

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How do proton beams destroy cancer cells?

When protons reach the nucleus (or center) of cancer cells, they transfer energy to the cells' electrons causing a series of interactions, or ionizing events, that damage the DNA of the cancer cells. The damaged cells then die because they can no longer divide.

How many patients have received proton therapy?

Since the first hospital-based proton treatment center opened in California in 1990, nearly 75,000 people have received proton therapy in the United States and almost 200,000 people worldwide.

Is proton therapy new?

No, the first patient received treatment with protons more than 60 years ago, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved proton therapy as a radiation treatment option in 1988.

What is the history of proton therapy?

In 1946, physicist Robert Wilson first proposed that protons could be used to deliver an increased dose of radiation to a tumor while simultaneously decreasing the exposure of surrounding healthy tissue to radiation.

By 1950, the first research trials were being conducted on patients in Europe. Results were promising, but the inability of imaging technology to accurately "see" or locate many tumors and the inability to direct protons to sites deep within the body meant that only a few patients were appropriate candidates for the treatment.

Advances in imaging, including computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), now allow physicians to "see" deep inside the body and precisely define the location, size and shape of tumors. This capability, coupled with improvements in proton technology, brought about today's growing interest in proton therapy as an important treatment option for cancer.

Can proton therapy be used in combination with other cancer treatments?

In many cases, yes. Proton therapy can be used in combination with chemotherapy, as a follow-up treatment to surgery, and in combination with standard radiation treatment. In cases where a tumor has reoccurred after previous treatment with traditional radiation therapy and cannot be treated again with X-rays, proton therapy is a treatment option.

The Proton Center is affiliated with several medical centers to provide patients with additional cancer services.

To learn if you can benefit from proton therapy, call 1.877.887.5807 or fill out our online form.

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What are the potential side effects of proton therapy?

Patients should not feel pain or discomfort during treatment sessions. There may be side effects during or after treatment, but they are generally minor, less frequent and less severe, primarily because less healthy tissue is exposed to radiation. Depending on the location of your tumor, side effects may include skin irritation in the direct path of the proton radiation, tiredness and hair loss in the area being treated. Your radiation oncologist will discuss with you the specific side effects that you may experience based on your treatment plan.

Is there continuous research on proton therapy

Yes, the medical community continues to conduct research studies on proton therapy. Major healthcare organizations across the United States have many ongoing clinical trials to help find improvements in treating cancer with proton therapy. As a dedicated provider of proton therapy, the Proton Center is currently participating in several clinical trials.

If you are interested in participating in a trial, please speak with a team member at the Northwestern Medicine Proton Center.

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Is Proton Therapy Right For You?

What are some of the common tumor sites treated with proton therapy?

Certain types of cancer are more appropriate for proton therapy than others. While research continues to support using protons in more types of tumors, protons are primarily used to treat:

Other types of tumors may also be treated with proton therapy.

Learn more about tumor sites that can benefit from proton therapy

Can proton therapy be used to treat recurrent cancers?

In many cases, yes. Proton therapy can be used to treat recurring cancers that standard radiation therapy cannot. Patients should discuss proton therapy with a board-certified radiation oncologist to determine if it can be beneficial. Proton therapy can also be an option if you’ve already had a course of standard radiation and are unable to receive more.

Can children receive proton therapy?

Yes, in fact, proton therapy is particularly effective for children who need radiation therapy. Clinical studies indicate that proton therapy reduces the likelihood of developmental problems as well as secondary tumors which can occur years later.3,5,8 Because a child’s body is small and still developing, the damage to nearby healthy tissue and organs from standard radiation can be harmful. This damage can cause developmental and growth delays, reductions in IQ and other complications.9 New tumors can also develop later in the child's life. A growing body of research is confirming the advantages of using proton therapy for children.

Can proton therapy be used for all types of cancers in all patients?

Proton therapy is not appropriate for all types of cancers or all patients. Proton therapy is most effective in treating solid tumors that are well-defined and localized—those that have not spread to other areas of the body. If the tumor has spread (metastasized), proton therapy may still be an option, depending on the extent of the metastasis and other factors. Only a healthcare provider can determine the best approach for a patient's unique condition.

To learn if you can benefit from proton therapy, call 1.877.887.5807 or fill out our online form.

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Video Library

We have created a library of several videos for you with key information such as:

  • What is Proton Therapy?
  • Benefits of Proton Therapy
  • Real patient stories/testimonials regarding specific tumor types
  • Virtual tour of the proton center