Proton Therapy: a breakthrough in cancer treatment

Cancer is a disease when the cells in your body divide turbulently and it spreads through the tissues surrounding it. There are two kinds of cancer, malignant, wherein it can spread uncontrollably, and benign, that is harmless and does not have any effects. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, cancer is one of the leading causes of deaths in 2017, with 599,108 deaths in the United States. Over the years, the treatment for different types of cancer develops over time. For example the traditional radiation therapy, transplants, surgeries, etc. However, there is another type of treatment for cancer that people forget about, proton therapy.

What is proton therapy and how does it work?

Proton therapy also called proton beam therapy or proton radiotherapy is a type of radiation therapy that uses particle radiation such as protons, to eradicate tumors. Proton therapy was discovered way back in 1946 by an American physicist, Robert R. Wilson, Ph.D. His idea attempted to treat patients in nuclear physics facilities, but it was limited at that time. Proton therapy is done by using high-energy proton beams that target tumors with precision. The proton beam is precisely targeted at the tumor itself, leaving the surrounding tissues with reduced radiation.

Usually, proton therapy is done in one to five proton beam sessions. Generally, doctors use larger doses of radiation for a fewer number of treatments. This method is called stereotactic body radiotherapy.

Before getting treatment, you will get a CT or an MRI scan. Body movement is limited during the scan and the treatment. A device will help you to stay still. The exact position you had in your scan will be also the same while you’re receiving treatment for accurate and precise proton treatment. Each proton therapy session usually takes around 15-30 minutes depending on the part of the body being treated and how the doctors analyze your CT or MRI scans.

How does it differ from traditional radiation therapy?

Proton therapy uses protons that directly sends high-energy beams at the tumor, minimizing the radiation exposure to surrounding organs and tissues. On the other hand, traditional radiation therapy deposits x-rays that use beams of photons at the tumors and the tissues and organs around it. This can damage organs and tissues around that can trigger significant side effects. Proton therapy may be safer and effective than traditional radiation therapy for patients with advanced cancer. A new study was published at the JAMA Oncology shows that the patients treated using proton therapy were less likely to experience side effects than patients treated with traditional radiation therapy. However, according to Jeffrey Buchsbaum, M.D. Ph.D. of the NCI’s Radiation Research Program that the key aspects of this study limit how the findings can be interpreted. 

Pros and Cons of Proton Therapy

Of course, every medical treatment has its advantages and disadvantages. Here are the pros and cons of Proton Therapy.


High Precision

Proton therapy deposits protons, which are positively charged atomic particles, and they target directly at the tumor while reducing exposure on the surrounding organs and tissues.

Few Side Effects

Since proton therapy doesn’t have any exit dose, the surrounding organs and tissues have reduced radiation exposure and the long and short-term side effects are lessened.

Best Possible For Various Tumor Types

Complex cases like having irregularly shaped tumors, hard to reach, and close to vital organs can be treated with proton therapy with high precision and accuracy.

Fewer Chances of Secondary Tumors

Secondary tumors are less likely to occur when treated by proton therapy compared to traditional radiation therapy because of their ability to control radiation to have fewer side effects.


No relative studies

There is no appropriately designed study that compares and contrasts proton therapy and traditional radiation therapy. In 2010, a report was issued by the ECRI Institute, an institute for comparative effectiveness, that there were only 15% of cancer cases that had an appropriate treatment. It’s commonly in patients with tumors near their vital organs. However, studies about proton therapy are increasing because there are now more proton therapy centers available.

No standard for dosing levels

According to Diana Robertson, the director of health technology assessment information services for the ECRI Institute, stated that the lack of data about dosing levels may create problems because there are no studies that show what the optimal dose is. In this case, there are practices with proton therapy but optimal dosing must go through several testing and studies before taking on the patient’s individual needs.

Very costly and expensive

There are only a few proton therapy centers in the United States because proton therapy requires highly specialized equipment. Compared to traditional radiation therapy, proton therapy is much more expensive. Insurance providers differ on what kind of treatments are covered.

Proton Therapy Centers

A few proton therapy medical centers are found in the United States. But there is a credible medical center found in New Jersey called ProCure. ProCure has been around since 2012. They are specialized in Pencil Beam Scanning (PBS), to prevent unnecessary radiation exposure on the tissues. This method allows the proton radiation to fit with the exact shape and size of the tumor, ideally for tumors near vital organs and tissues to prevent excess radiation. Proton therapy is covered by several private insurance providers such as Medicare, and URAC, depending on the type of cancer and stage. 

Being diagnosed with cancer can be a traumatic experience, especially during this time, where all hospitals are occupied because of the global pandemic. But factual medical information is always helpful. False medical information can be dangerous. It is better to know the benefits, the risks, to-do, and what not to do. Even though there are risks and pitfalls in proton therapy research, there are ongoing researches that could make a breakthrough in cancer treatment, which means there is still hope to be found under difficult circumstances.