Proton Therapy: Frequently Asked Questions

Exterior Building Photo of Thompson Proton Center

What is proton therapy treatment?

Proton therapy is one of the most technologically advanced ways to deliver radiation treatments to cancerous tumors. A beam of high-energy protons is delivered with pin-point accuracy to the exact size, shape and depth of the tumor to kill the cancer while sparing healthy tissue in the area from unnecessary radiation, therefore decreasing the risk of side-effects.

What is the difference between proton therapy and traditional radiation therapy?

Proton therapy is an advanced type of external beam radiation therapy. As with all forms of radiation therapy, proton therapy destroys cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide by damaging the cells’ DNA and causing them to die. Unlike radiation therapy that uses x-rays, proton therapy uses a beam of high-energy protons delivered directly into the tumor. Protons stop and deposit all of their energy at the target site, eliminating the unnecessary exit dose of radiation to healthy tissue. Traditional forms of radiation therapy use x-rays (photons), which deposit energy continuously from entering the body, through and beyond the tumor being treated into surrounding healthy tissue on the way to exit the body. Exposing healthy tissue to this unnecessary radiation can result in damage which creates side effects.

What are the advantages of proton therapy?

Proton therapy enables physicians to precisely determine the shape, size, depth and dose of treatment to effectively treat tumors while avoiding and eliminating damage to nearby healthy organs and tissues. Reducing or eliminating unnecessary radiation to healthy tissue improves quality of life during and after treatment by reducing the side effects.

Am I a candidate for proton therapy?

The only certain way to know if proton therapy is the best option for your cancer treatment plan is to speak with a proton-experienced radiation oncologist. Generally, if you have been diagnosed with cancer and radiation will be part of your treatment, then proton therapy may be right for you. To schedule a consultation with a radiation oncologist, call our cancer care experts at (865) 862-1600.

Can children receive proton therapy?

Yes. The American Society of Radiation Oncology concludes the benefits of proton therapy may be even greater for pediatric patients. Children’s tissue and rapid cell growth and turnover is exquisitely sensitive to radiation. This makes eliminating unnecessary radiation and sparing healthy tissue as much as possible important to avoid long-term side effects.

What is the treatment like for proton therapy?

The proton therapy treatment team work to make your treatment as comfortable as possible. A team of radiation therapists will take you to the treatment room and position you on a table so that you are aligned to best access your cancer for treatment. They will work with you and use positioning cushions and tools to find a position you will be comfortable in throughout treatment, and replicate this position for each visit. You can request music be played during your treatment. The actual beam is on only a few minutes, but with preparation and positioning, total treatment time is usually 20 to 30 minutes.

How long does a proton therapy session last?

The actual beam is on only a few minutes, but with preparation and positioning, total treatment time is usually between 20 and 30 minutes.

How many proton therapy sessions will I need?

Similar to conventional radiation, proton therapy delivers a total prescribed dose of radiation planned by the radiation oncologist and split into a number of treatment sessions called fractions. The number of treatment sessions depends on several things, including the type of cancer and the location of treatment. Patients typically receive proton therapy five days a week for four to eight weeks. Because the treatments are typically brief and there are minimal, if any, side effects, patients are usually able to maintain their lifestyle and continue to work or participate in their pre-treatment activities and routines.

Can proton therapy be combined with other treatment options?

Yes. Cancer is often treated with several different modalities. Patients may be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy or hormone therapy in addition to proton therapy. These treatments are combined according to the individual’s case and can be delivered in various order, or some may be delivered during the same time period.

Is proton therapy FDA approved?

Yes, proton therapy earned FDA approval in 1988. Proton therapy has been covered by Medicare since 1997 to treat most cancer diagnoses.

Can I meet with a radiation oncologist remotely?

Although proton therapy sessions must be completed in person, remote care visits are available for some situations. To learn more, connect with one of our cancer care coordinators at 865-737-1901.

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