Proton Therapy: What is It?

If someone says “chemotherapy”, most people know what they mean or at least recognize the word. But how many people could say the same about proton therapy?

Proton therapy is an alternative cancer treatment that uses external beams. Unlike chemotherapy, which are drugs injected directly into the body, proton therapy uses external beams that penetrate the body and kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. These beams damage cells through ionization.

Our bodies’ cells are composed of many components which includes a central nucleus that holds DNA and water in the surrounding tissue.. Radiation can kill cells by two methods; 1) breaking DNA strands and 2) hydrolysis of water. DNA strands contain our genes. When radiation hits the strands, they can damage or break the strands so that when the cell divides, it does not create viable new cells. Water is H2O. When radiation interacts with water it can break the water into H2 and O2 .Sometimes the two can reform back into water, but sometimes they reform back into H2O2 or hydrogen peroxide which is lethal to the cell. Those damaged cells then attempt to repair themselves, however; after extensive radiotherapy, cancer cells are significantly less effective at doing this than healthy cells.

Proton Therapy needs expensive equipment which makes treatment centers rare. So if proton therapy essentially does the same thing as other types of cancer treatment, why spend so many dollars on continued research and development of proton beams?

The main advantage of proton therapy, as an alternative cancer treatment to chemotherapy or x-ray therapy, is its ability to produce less scatter and travels to a specific controllable depth and stops… Because radiation oncologists can target proton beams directly at harmful cell tissue, they are able to save more of their patients’ healthy cells. These doctors also have the ability to administer a higher dosage of radiation to their patients because of the proton beam’s accuracy.

It may seem that if this treatment is more precise and powerful than other options, it should be the primary treatment for cancer patients. This isn’t the case however, due to the cost. Particle accelerators needed to create proton beams are extremely expensive to develop and build, and the facilities that house them are few and far between for cancer patients in the United States. Only nine such facilities exist across the country. It may not be easy for a cancer patient to travel states away for the nearly 10 to 45 proton therapy treatments necessary for care, but it may be worth it.

Proton therapy, as an alternative cancer treatment to chemotherapy or other radiotherapy procedures, may provide patients a better quality of life during and after treatment because there are generally less side effects with this kind of treatment than traditional radiation. The reason for this is because the beam can be precisely targeted to the tumor, and therefore less radiation scatters into healthy tissue causing associated side effects. As medical technology advances, and as the treatment becomes more available, proton therapy may be regarded and recommended by more doctors and patients.