Proton Therapy: An Alternative Cancer Treatment

Comeback stories: Hard not to appreciate, right? Take Lance Armstrong in 1999 for example. Whether you love him or hate him, there are likely passionate feelings there. And it’s undeniable that his story is special. After overcoming testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain, he won the Tour de France. And the next six as well. We all need stories like that from time to time—to be reassured that sometimes you can win twice. Or even six times.

Enduring cancer treatment is a battle. Often it can mean radiation therapy. You only have to read a book or watch a movie with someone going through treatment to know that it’s no picnic.  During standard X-ray radiation, photons can treat surrounding healthy tissue when administered, and this can cause side effects. This may limit the dose a physician can give. The result then can be that the dose is less than enough to kill a tumor.

What’s more, a patient generally cannot undergo standard radiation therapy more than once to the same area. So, maybe it does work the first time. Great. But, what happens if the cancer returns, or a new kind of cancer is detected? Traditional radiation therapy is likely not an option.

Alternative treatments are out there. A second win may be possible. With proton therapy, protons attempt to address this tricky cancer-fighting problem. In this therapy, the traditionally used photons are replaced with the heavier protons, which don’t scatter as much nor add dose to normal tissue beyond the cancer. Due to the relatively large size of protons, the beam used for treatment stays focused on the tumor shape and delivers low-dose side-effects to surrounding tissue.

Wikipedia describes it this way:

“Proton therapy is a type of external beam radiotherapy using ionizing radiation. During treatment, a particle accelerator is used to target the tumor with a beam of protons. These charged particles damage the DNA of cells, ultimately causing their death or interfering with their ability to proliferate. Cancerous cells, because of their high rate of division and their reduced ability to repair damaged DNA, are particularly vulnerable to attack on their DNA.”

Though it’s been around since around 1940, this treatment requires a particle accelerator of the size and expense not easily facilitated. Only a handful of treatment centers are capable of proton therapy.

And what kind of cancers does this therapy affect? Adult cancers of the eye, spine and base of the skull benefit from proton precision because critical organs are so close by. Children with tumors should especially benefit because regular radiation can affect their growth and cause secondary cancers later in life. Prostate cancer is also effectively treated with proton therapy.

The battle with cancer is hard enough. It’s good to know that there are multiple ways to fight back.

Disclaimer: this article does not claim that Lance Armstrong went through proton therapy. The author has no idea what cancer treatments he went through.

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Thomas Stone

Thomas Stone is health blogger at and he focuses primarily on the benefits of exercise and nutrition for health.

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