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Precision Through Protons

Precision through Protons

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A Q&A on Proton Therapy for Pediatric Tumors

Childhood cancer is a heartbreaking diagnosis, and one that 10,380 children in the United States receive each year. But because of major treatment breakthroughs more than 80 percent of children with cancer now survive five years or more. And due to the precision of proton therapy, they’re living with fewer side effects than ever before.

Leukemia, brain and central nervous system (CNS) tumors, neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor and both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are the most common cancers affecting children under 15. Childhood cancers are not strongly linked to lifestyle or environmental risk factors and they tend to respond better to treatments like chemotherapy. Many of these cancers, particularly brain and CNS tumors, can be treated with proton therapy.

Proton therapy exposes the least amount of surrounding healthy tissue to radiation causing fewer side effects. At the Northwestern Medicine Chicago Proton Center, specialists use proton beam therapy and pencil-beam scanning to treat pediatric tumors and improve children’s long-term quality of life.

William F. Hartsell, MD, FACR, FACRO, FASTRO, the medical director of the Chicago Proton Center, answered a few questions to provide more insight on the treatment.

How does proton beam therapy work?

Protons stop at a specific distance, providing treatment to the tumor and very little dose outside of the tumor. Pencil-beam proton treatment administers the dose a spot at a time – allowing us to be extremely precise with the treatment.

What makes proton beam therapy a breakthrough treatment?

Proton therapy spares more normal tissue than standard radiation therapy, but the pencil beam treatment allows even more precision with the treatment. It allows us to match treatment to the tumor even better than the prior techniques. This can be especially beneficial when the treatment is near critical tissues like the spinal cord, brainstem or optic nerves.

How can children benefit from proton therapy?

Proton therapy provides children the same chance of cure as standard radiation therapy – including intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). But, proton therapy has significantly lower risk of long-term side effects. Specific effects depend on which part of the body is being treated. The brain is most common site of treatment in children and protons decrease the risks of problems with memory, concentration, vision and hearing.

Can proton therapy improve quality of life during cancer treatment?

There are certain situations where there are fewer side effects during treatment, however the primary benefit is quality of life in the long run. Protons are associated with fewer long-term issues following treatment, which is especially important in younger patients.

What is the history of proton therapy and pediatric cancer specialty care at Northwestern Medicine?

Proton therapy has been used to treat children for more than 60 years, but was only available at several sites in the world until the past decade. The Northwestern Medicine center opened in October 2010 and we have been linked with Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago since we treated our first patient. The Lurie pediatric oncologists come to our center to see patients on treatment and the radiation oncologists here participate in the weekly tumor boards and weekly clinics at Lurie Children’s.

Some of the younger patients receive anesthesia for the daily treatment. The anesthesiologists from Lurie Children’s provide that service at the Chicago Proton Center. In addition, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago provides rehabilitation services as does MarianJoy Rehabilitation in the western suburbs. One of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physicians who specializes in treatment of children participates in the clinics at the proton center as well.

How does the addition of the proton center benefit the communities of the western suburbs?

We treat patients from a wide region – many states and even more than a dozen countries. Those patients have to uproot their families to stay for four, five, six or even eight weeks of treatment. This is a resource that the patients in the western suburbs can use without such a disruption in their lives.

To learn more about the Chicago Proton Center and the impact of proton therapy on childhood cancers, reach out to the proton center care team.