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What is proton therapy?
The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center – Wisconsin's only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center – has a long tradition of excellence in radiation therapy. In 2024, we will enter a new era in treatment.
One of the most exciting features of the new Eastpark Medical Center will be the latest innovation in cancer treatment - upright proton therapy. The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center will be one of a few select health systems in the country to offer proton beam therapy. And, in collaboration with Leo Cancer Care, we will be the only health system in the nation to offer upright proton therapy.
Proton beam therapy offers fewer side effects and more accurately targets the area to be treated, even for hard-to-reach tumors that may be close to vital organs and tissue. The ability to limit the effects on normal tissue is one reason the treatment is valuable for children who are still growing. Upright proton therapy will enable the treatment to be delivered to patients as they are sitting, offering better comfort, while enabling even greater accuracy.
How does proton therapy work?
Proton therapy directs cancer-fighting energy from outside the body to pinpoint tumor locations inside the body. It is a form of external beam radiation therapy. Traditional radiation uses energy generated from X-rays or photons. Photons are particles or waves of light that carry electromagnetic force. Proton therapy uses energy from positively charged, very small particles. Proton particles live inside an atom’s nucleus and bind it together. Because of its accuracy, it is an ideal form of treatment for both children and adults who need radiation.
How is upright radiation different?
Traditional proton therapy is delivered to patient lying on their back or stomach. The upright radiation developed by Leo Care allows a patient to sit upright and receive their radiation treatment in a position that is much more natural. For many patients, underlying health conditions - such as certain heart or lung conditions - can make it difficult for a patient to lie flat on the table for the duration of treatment. By sitting upright, patients are comfortably positioned, allowing their heart and lungs to function more naturally. They can also interact more easily with their health care providers. For children, this approach may even reduce or eliminate the need sedation during treatment.
What makes proton therapy special is the ability to customize the energy beam. Unlike X-ray radiation, proton beam radiation can be precisely aimed and shaped to destroy cancer cells in a highly specific location. For patients with tumors up against critical structures, such as the eye, brainstem or heart, proton therapy can target the tumor while limiting side effects to these critical tissues nearby. This is important for children and a reason why proton therapy is often a recommended form of treatment.
Benefits to patients
What proton therapy treats
Proton beam therapy offers fewer side effects and more precisely targets the area to be treated, even for hard-to-reach tumors that may be very close to vital organs and tissues. Upright proton therapy will enable the treatment to be delivered to patients as they are sitting, offering better comfort, while enabling even greater accuracy.
The precision of proton therapy, and its ability to protect healthy tissue, make it a great option to treat:
Tumors near vital organs
Tumors not readily treatable with surgery
Many types of cancer respond well to proton therapy. They include:
Proton therapy may also be effective if your cancer remains or returns after traditional radiation.
Experts at the UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center intimately understand every type of cancer. We will get to know you and design a treatment plan that works for you and your family.
Dr. Howard BaileyDirector, UW Carbone Cancer Center
Why proton therapy
Helping patients achieve the best outcomes
The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center has been a leader in advancing the understanding and treatment of cancer. With the addition of upright proton therapy, we are making a change that will impact cancer care worldwide.
How proton therapy works
Proton therapy brings advanced benefits to radiation treatment, such as:
Reduced risk of side effects
Specialized, effective dosing for every part of a tumor
Treatment delivery to a highly precise target
A proton beam delivers cancer-destroying radiation with the smallest diameter and highest precision. Surrounding tissue is spared, making proton therapy a highly efficient treatment.
A large, safely enclosed machine called a cyclotron (or synchrotron) speeds up the protons in a circular path. This motion creates high-intensity energy. Another device, called a gantry, emits the proton beam during treatment.
We are on the forefront of cancer care and medical care for the betterment of tomorrow's patients.
Dr. Paul HarariChair, Department of Human Oncology
Upright proton therapy and pediatric care
Proton therapy is the most accurate radiation therapy available. This is particularly beneficial for pediatric patients. Worldwide, children are preferentially recommended for proton therapy. Because children are at a critical growth stage for development, irradiating nearby normal tissues during the course of treatment can permanently affect their growth and development. Proton therapy allows us to target the tumors while minimizing side effects to surrounding tissue and thereby limiting potential damage.
Proton therapy success rates
Current research shows that proton therapy causes fewer side effects than traditional radiation. A study published in JAMA Oncology in 2019 followed 1,500 adults with 11 different types of cancer. Part of the group received proton therapy; the rest were treated with traditional radiation.
Within 90 days of starting treatment, a severe side effect was experienced by:
45 patients (12 percent) in the proton therapy group
301 patients (28 percent) in the traditional radiation group
Frequently asked questions about proton therapy
What is proton beam therapy?
Proton beam therapy is a form of external beam radiation therapy. Traditional radiation uses energy generated from x-rays or photons. Photons are particles or waves of light that carry electromagnetic force. Proton therapy uses energy from positively charged, very small particles. Proton particles live inside an atom's nucleus and bind it together.
A large, safely enclosed machine called a cyclotron (or synchrotron) speeds up the proton in a circular path. This motion creates high-intensity energy. Another device, called a gantry, emits the proton beam during treatment.
What happens during treatment?
Before radiation begins, your care team properly positions you on the treatment table. During treatment when patients are in position:
You will hear the proton machine, but you won’t feel anything.
The gantry moves around your body to the correct delivery angle.
Radiation is delivered to the treatment site.
Radiation delivery itself usually takes a few minutes. However, most appointments last about 30 minutes because it takes time to align your body and the machine.
Are there common side effects from proton therapy?
Patients can expect fewer side effects from proton therapy because there is a lower chance of damaging healthy tissue. However, the side effects patients may experience depend on their diagnosis and tumor location.
Common side effects include:
Hair loss at the treatment site
Irritated, red skin at the treatment site
Loss of appetite
Skin changes at the treatment site, including:
Side effects from proton therapy often start a few weeks after treatment begins. But they usually go away a few weeks after treatment ends.
What is different about upright proton therapy?
Traditionally, proton therapy is delivered to patients who are lying either on their back or stomach. Upright proton therapy is given to patients who are either standing or in a seated position.
For patients who have underlying conditions, such as cardiac or pulmonary conditions, lying on a table may be difficult for them. When seated, it is easier for them to breathe and for their heart to function, allowing them to be more comfortable for the duration of treatment.
Young children who are undergoing radiation treatment often have to be sedated. This may mean every time they undergo treatment, they have to be put to sleep with anesthesia. By allowing them to be in a more natural upright position, we may reduce the need for sedation, making treatment easier on the child and family.
What are the benefits of upright proton therapy?
There are a number of benefits to upright radiation therapy, including:
Patients are more comfortable
Reduces the amount of time required for a therapist to position the patient
For patients with tumors in certain areas, being upright allows parts of the body to move further away from vulnerable organs like the heart, lungs, bladder or bowel.
Minimizes the drifting of organs that occurs when patients are lying down
Reduces treatment times because there is less set up required for each patient
Is proton therapy covered by insurance?
Coverage varies by insurance and disease type. Medicare generally covers proton therapy. You can work with a UW Health financial counselor and check with your insurance about coverage.
UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center
The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center is Wisconsin's only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center. This mean you have access to the nation's top experts in cancer treatment, research and education.
Eastpark Medical Center
We're building the future of cancer care
UW Health Eastpark Medical Center will be a destination medical center with multiple specialties in a single location, allowing patients to receive all of their care during a single visit. From consultative and supportive services to clinical research and treatment available no where else, patients will receive the personalized care they expect in an environment they deserve.
The new facility will bring experts in adult and pediatric oncology together in a single, accessible location making it easier for patients to receive the care they need in an efficient and convenient manner.
A history of cancer innovation
1stin the country
UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center will be the first to offer upright proton beam therapy
The UW Carbone Cancer Center is the 5th in the nation for research funding
1 of 6Original cancer centers
We are one of the original NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers
The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center is the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in Wisconsin
UW–Madison has been home to groundbreaking advances in cancer research for decades
There are more than 250 cancer clinical trials taking place at UW Health at any given time
Opening in 2024, Eastpark Medical Center is not just a new facility, but a new way to deliver health care.Learn more