Proton therapy

Almost all cancer patients resort to radiation for treatment. The radiation kills the cancerous cells in the body and also prevents the growth and spreading of other cancerous cells. There are many types of radiation for treating cancer. The most common type is X-rays. However, recently another type of radiation therapy has become widely used. This therapy is known as proton therapy.

In the proton therapy, the radiation is a beam of microscopic particles known as protons. This beam is targeted at a tumor. Once the beam reaches the tumor, the high speed of the protons allows it to kill the cells. The beam of protons is extremely narrow. As a result, most of the protons reach the tumor directly. As a result, only a small number of protons reach and kill the nearby non-cancerous cells. This feature of the proton therapy makes it superior to x-ray therapies since the dose of radiation can be significantly increased in the former case.

However, proton therapies are not suitable for cancers which have already spread to other parts of the body. In this case, X-ray therapy is much more beneficial even if a lose dose of X-ray radiation is used. Most researchers and physicians suggest proton therapies for certain types of cancers, such as:

  • Brain cancers, especially the childhood brain tumors and acoustic neuroma tumors;
  • Eye cancers, especially retinoblastoma and ocular melanoma;
  • Tumors on the neck and on the head;
  • Lung cancers;
  • Spine cancers;
  • Prostrate cancers.

In the future, physicians may also use proton therapy for treating conditions other than cancers, such as macular degeneration.

People should get proton therapy only in the presence of experienced health care providers. During the therapy, the patients wear a device which prevents them from moving sideways. Where the cancer is located in the body determines the type of the device used. For instance, people who are suffering from cancers in their heads usually wear a mask to prevent their head from moving. Staying still during the therapy is important since otherwise the beam of protons would reach healthy cells instead of the cancerous ones.

The patients then undergo different types of scans, such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans and CT (computer tomography) scans. These scans are mandatory since they show where the tumor is precisely located. During the therapy, radiation oncologists will be present. They help mark out the exact shape and location of the tumor with the aid of a computer. The proton therapy lasts for only one or two minutes. However, it is usually taken every day for the next six to seven days. The duration of the treatment is determined by the type and the seriousness of the cancer.

During the therapy, the patient is kept in a gantry – which is a device shaped like a donut. This device performs a series of rotations and thus directs the beams of protons to the tumor from different directions. The beam of protons is generated by another machine known as cyclotron or synchrotron. After a while, the beam of protons can be passed to the tumor without this machine – using magnets.

During the treatment, the patient is kept alone in the therapy room. Although the duration of the treatment is very short, a lot of patients – especially those who are undertaking the therapy for the first time – feel scared due to the absence of any technician to accompany them. In addition, the patients suffer nausea and vomiting, soreness of the skin where the beam of protons has been targeted to, and loss of hair from this part of the skin.

All these side effects are also common with X-ray therapies. However, the intensity of the effects is lower in the cases of proton therapy. Also, patients will be able to return back to their daily activities as soon as the therapy is over.

Last updated on Feb 1st, 2011 and filed under Cancer Research. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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