Proton Therapy Treatment Process

It’s natural to feel a range of emotions when you are first diagnosed, but it’s important to remember there are resources and individuals to support you every step of the way. The Northwestern Medicine Proton Center is committed to providing patients with the best treatment we can to help ensure they can live a healthy, fulfilling life.

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In-Person Consultation

Our process is designed around minimizing your stress and preparing you for what’s to come. At your in-person consultation, you will meet with your doctor and nurse to discuss your treatment plan. During your consultation, your doctor may decide if additional tests are necessary to plan your treatment, such as blood work, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Your Care Team nurse will help you coordinate and schedule any tests. If you do not have a local primary doctor, your nurse will make sure you get all the additional services and therapies you need. Learn more about your personal care team.

Scheduling a CT Scan

After you’ve had your consultation and any additional tests you may need, you will be scheduled to come to the center for a computed tomography simulation (CT) scan. You can expect your appointment to take up to two hours, including preparation time. Your radiation therapist will also use this time to educate you about the treatment process.

Creating a personalized treatment plan

You may have had a CT scan in the past to diagnose your tumor or for another medical reason, but this particular CT scan is necessary to gather images of your tumor and normal tissue so your doctor can “see” the tumor and pinpoint its exact location, size and shape. This CT scan is also used to determine how you should be positioned everyday for treatment. Custom devices are made in order to create a reproducible, comfortable treatment position.

Your medical team will use the CT images to create a personalized treatment plan specifically for you. The treatment plan will contain important details including the exact dose of protons you need to target your tumor with precision.

Patient Education Video for CT Simulation Process
Patient Education Video: The CT Simulation Process

Proton Center Treatment Planning Session educational video
Patient Education Video: Treatment Planning Process

Scheduling Therapy Sessions

A staff member will contact you once your personal treatment plan is complete (this usually takes one to two weeks). He or she will tell you how many treatments your doctor has prescribed, and schedule your first appointment for proton therapy. Most patients are scheduled for therapy five days a week, excluding weekends and holidays, for a period of four to nine weeks. Your schedule will depend on your treatment plan.

During Treatment Sessions

The entire treatment session can range from 15 minutes to over an hour. Since proton therapy is so precise, you must be in the specific position determined at the time of CT simulation to ensure the proton beam hits the target directly. Your Care Team will position you before each treatment using our robotic treatment table and X-ray positioning system. During the actual treatment, you will not feel or see the proton beam. You may hear some clicking sounds from the equipment around you. These sounds usually go unnoticed by patients after a few treatment sessions.

Ensuring your comfort

Proton therapy is a noninvasive treatment. There is no reported discomfort or sensation during the actual radiation treatments.

We’re dedicated to making your treatments as comfortable as possible for you.

Proton Center Patient Orientation
Patient Education Video: Patient Orientation

Side Effects of Proton Therapy Treatment

Because there is no recovery time, you can return to your normal daily activities right after each treatment session. There is no need to stay overnight in a hospital or remain at the center after your treatment.

If there are side effects during or after treatment, they are generally minor and occur after a number of treatments. Depending on the location of your tumor, side effects may include:

  • Skin irritation in the direct path of the proton radiation
  • Tiredness
  • Hair loss around the area being treated

Before treatment begins, your doctor will discuss possible side effects with you. Your Care Team nurse is available to help manage any side effects you may have.

Doctor Check-ins

You will meet with a radiation oncology physician once a week to discuss how your therapy is progressing. Your doctor may order additional tests such as blood tests, CTs, MRIs or other scans during the course of your treatment. If you have specific needs or questions, a doctor is available for you at any time.

Follow-up Care and Support

We’re dedicated to you while you’re here and after you leave. Follow-up care is extremely important, so you will have regular follow-up appointments with your physician to monitor your health after treatment. Your Care Team will remain in contact with you and your referring physician after you've completed treatment.

We focus on giving you what you need to return to a normal life as quickly as possible.

Learn more about getting support during your treatment sessions.