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What is proton therapy?

Proton Therapy

Proton therapy is a highly precise form of radiation treatment for cancer. Cancer occurs when old or damaged cells divide and multiply uncontrollably, even when your body signals them to stop. The goal of any radiation therapy is to cure cancer, control cancer, or relieve cancer symptoms by killing cancer cells and shrinking tumors.

Like traditional X-ray radiation therapy, proton therapy is an external beam radiation therapy. This means that it delivers radiation to the body from a machine outside the body. However, unlike traditional X-ray radiation therapy, proton therapy delivers a much more precise beam of radiation in the form of charged protons instead of X-rays. It is much like the difference between a standard flashlight beam and a laser pointer light beam.

Proton therapy’s precision minimizes side effects because it spares more healthy tissue than traditional X-ray radiation therapy. This allows doctors to maximize the dose of radiation with proton therapy.

The disadvantage of proton therapy is its availability and expense. At this time, proton therapy is not widely available, in part because it is expensive to build and use the proton beam machine. 

Proton therapy is only one method used to treat cancer and other conditions. Discuss all your treatment options with your doctor to understand which options are best for you.

Types of proton therapy

Pencil beam scanning proton therapy is a form of highly specialized proton therapy. This form of proton therapy uses a single, even more precise radiation beam less than a millimeter wide. The beam scans or sweeps back and forth across the tumor allowing it to conform the radiation precisely to the shape of the tumor.

Other procedures that may be performed

Your doctor may recommend one or more procedures to treat cancer. These include:

  • Biological therapy or immunotherapy boosts or stimulates your body’s immune system to help fight cancer. 
  • Chemotherapy treats cancer with medications that slow or stop the growth of cancer cells.
  • Hormonal therapy blocks the effects of hormones that stimulate growth of certain cancers.
  • Laser therapy removes tumors and treats cancer symptoms with a laser.
  • Photodynamic therapy combines special light-sensitive drugs with specific wavelengths of light. Your doctor injects the drug into your tumor and exposes it to the light. This produces a reaction that kills cancer cells.
  • Surgery removes cancerous and noncancerous tumors. Your doctor may also use surgery to prevent cancer by removing pre-cancerous tissues.
Medical Reviewers: Daphne E. Hemmings, MD, MPH Last Review Date: Dec 21, 2012

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Medical References

Explaining Proton Therapy. American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). http://www.cancer.net/all-about-cancer/cancernet-feature-articles/treatments-tests-and-procedures/explaining-proton-therapy. Accessed June 15, 2013.
Frequently Asked Questions. The National Association for Proton Therapy. http://www.proton-therapy.org/questions.htm. Accessed June 15, 2013.
How It Works. The National Association for Proton Therapy. http://www.proton-therapy.org/howit.htm. Accessed June 15, 2013.
Pencil Beam Radiation Offers New Therapy Option for Lung Cancer Patients. The National Association for Proton Therapy. http://www.proton-therapy.org/lungcancer_1010.html. Accessed June 15, 2013.
Proton Therapy. American College of Radiology. http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=protonthera. Accessed June 15, 2013.
What is Proton Therapy? MD Anderson Cancer Center. http://www.mdanderson.org/patient-and-cancer-information/proton-therapy-center/what-is-proton-therapy/index.html. Accessed November 16, 2012.
What is Proton Therapy? Penn Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. http://www.pennmedicine.org/perelman/proton/what-is-proton-therapy.html. Accessed November 16, 2012.
Proton Therapy for Lung Cancer Treatment. The University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute. http://www.floridaproton.org/cancers-treated/lung-cancer. Accessed December 3, 2012.

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