October 22, 2022

Is proton therapy right for your cancer?

Radiation therapy is a standard cancer treatment. However, it comes with a range of unpleasant side effects and complications. If you’re looking for a different type of radiation therapy, then proton therapy might be an option. We’re here to help you understand what proton therapy is, how it works and what kinds of cancers it can treat.

This article will cover the following topics about proton therapy:

  • What is proton therapy?

  • How does receiving proton therapy work?

  • What cancers is proton therapy used to treat?

  • How successful is proton therapy as a cancer treatment?

  • What are the side effects of proton therapy?

  • How much does proton therapy cost?

What is proton therapy?

Proton therapy is a newer type of radiation cancer treatment. It maximizes how much radiation hits cancer cells, so it can be more effective and accurate than traditional radiation therapy. Proton therapy can also limit how many healthy cells are damaged, which means fewer side effects and complications.

Proton therapy is more accurate because it uses a different kind of energy than traditional radiation treatment. Traditional radiation treatment uses X-rays, which pass through the body entirely and affect any type of cell in their path, including both cancerous and healthy cells.

Proton therapy uses tiny particles, called protons, which can’t pass through the body and cause unintentional damage. Instead, they stop near their intended target: cancer cells.

How does receiving proton therapy work?

Before receiving proton therapy radiation, you will meet with your doctor to develop a personalized treatment plan for your cancer. During this planning process, your doctor may:

  • Use a marker to note where on your body the radiation will be targeted

  • Perform imaging scans to help see your tumor better

After your doctor develops your treatment plan, you will return to a clinic regularly to receive doses of proton therapy. Treatment can be daily for up to eight weeks, though how long your treatment lasts depends on your cancer.

While each treatment session only lasts a few minutes, preparation can take up to 45 minutes. Your doctor needs to position you comfortably, so you don’t move during treatment. You may also need additional imaging scans to see how or if your tumor has moved and offer more precise targeting.

When UW Health's new Eastpark Medical Center opens, we will offer an upright form of proton therapy, the only upright proton therapy in the country. Upright therapy allows people to sit up straight while receiving radiation. Sitting up can be more comfortable, especially for people with heart and lung conditions. It can also make proton therapy more accurate.

Once you are ready for treatment, a machine will deliver high-energy doses of proton radiation to pre-determined areas of your body. After receiving your dose, you can leave the hospital that same day.

What cancers is proton therapy used to treat?

Despite being a relatively new type of radiation treatment, doctors have already used proton therapy to treat several cancers. Here are some of the most common types of cancer treated with proton therapy:

  • Brain cancer

  • Breast cancer

  • Esophageal cancer

  • Head and neck cancers

  • Liver cancer

  • Lung cancer

  • Lymphoma

  • Pancreatic cancer

  • Pediatric cancers

  • Prostate cancer

  • Sarcomas

How successful is proton therapy as a cancer treatment?

Proton therapy has a good success rate as a cancer treatment and has been proven safe and effective.

For example, a recent study compared traditional and proton radiation in people with different kinds of cancer. The study included about 1,500 adults with 11 different types of cancer. Of the participants, about 400 received proton therapy.

Here’s what they found:

  • Proton therapy produced fewer severe side effects that required a hospital stay. Only about 12% of study participants receiving proton therapy experienced severe side effects compared to 28% in the traditional radiation group.

  • Proton therapy was at least as effective as radiation therapy. About 46% of participants who received proton therapy and 49% of participants who received traditional radiation were cancer-free after three years.

However, every person is different, as is their cancer. That means everyone responds differently to proton therapy.

What are the side effects of proton therapy?

While proton therapy minimizes the damage to healthy cells that causes side effects, it can’t remove the risk entirely. After proton therapy, you may experience some side effects, just like with any cancer treatment.

Some of these side effects include:

  • fatigue

  • loss of appetite

  • redness, swelling or blistering of the skin

Side effects can also worsen when combining proton therapy with other treatments, such as chemotherapy.

How much does proton therapy cost?

Proton therapy generally costs more than traditional radiation therapy and is not covered by all insurance plans. Talk to your insurance provider if you have questions about your coverage.