This past summer, I was hired for an internship doing cancer research at a Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville, my hometown. Proton Therapy is a rapidly-growing alternative form of cancer treatment. It is generally viewed as a safer method to standard radiation treatment (chemo) or surgery. I was especially happy that I was going to be gaining some valuable experience in my field, and as an added bonus, it was paid. I thought to myself, “Great! This will look awesome on my resumé and I can make some extra cash this summer”. After finishing my final exams at Florida State University in Tallahassee, I drove back to Jacksonville excited to begin my internship. I figured my summer would be filled with laboratory work, analyzing samples, and writing about the results from my experiments; all of these being very valuable and important skills for my future career in medicine. At my first day on the job, I realized I had thought wrong:
I found out I’d be doing no lab work at all. My job was to initiate patient outreach, which is how doctors stay up to date on their patients and continue to help them remain healthy. Since the proton center had cured thousands of prostate cancer patients within the last decade, they needed somebody to collect data on their post-treatment quality of life, which was where I came into the picture. I had a list of a thousand cancer survivors to call and interview about their general health and well-being. After interviewing over a thousand patients, the answers I received were incredible.
I consulted the survivors with questions about everything from their current psychological state to urinary habits and sexual function. Almost every patient reported minimal to zero side-effects, which is absolutely unheard of for any standard cancer treatment. For example, if you have ever seen somebody going through chemotherapy, you might notice how they have lost their hair, look pale and weak, and almost always on the brink of nauseating …
Proton therapy significantly reduces the chances of developing those collateral effects. Now, let’s compare protons to chemo:
It has been accepted that proton therapy has the same efficacy as chemotherapy. The difference maker is that proton therapy delivers a more concentrated dose of radiation to the tumor site (whereas chemo simply prevents cells all over the body from growing). With this, the target tumor is the only tissue being “damaged”. Also, proton therapy delivers small, daily doses over a series of months to give the surrounding tissues time to heal. A general treatment for the day lasts around 20 minutes. This limited approach enables the body to function normally during the duration of the treatment and allows the patient to enjoy a pain-free regimen. With the limited time spent at the treatment center and the small (but effective) doses of radiation, patients can enjoy their lives while being cured. Some traveling patients I spoke to even made a vacation out of their treatment plan!
Since there are a very limited number of existing proton therapy centers, people from all over the world came to Jacksonville to receive their treatment. I interviewed people from Europe, Canada, South America, and places all over the United States. Since the therapy lasts over a series of months, the patients needed to temporarily live near the hospital. One patient even told me that he and his wife road-tripped in an RV from Nevada to Florida to receive the therapy. He jokingly told me that he finally got take his dream vacation, while simultaneously curing himself of cancer.
With all this said, is proton therapy the “magic bullet” for cancer? The short answer is: maybe. The long answer is: cancer is a very complicated thing and is resolved rather by a series of carefully-planned, well-thought-out treatment options geared toward what fits the patient best. I doubt there will ever be a “quick fix”. While proton therapy offers a multitude of benefits, proven efficacy, and considerably reduced rates of side effects, it is only used in less than 1% of cancer treatments. I believe it should be made more aware of and encourage people to do their own research.
Proton therapy needs to be researched further and have its current cost driven down via innovation/research breakthroughs. With the amount of Proton Therapy Centers growing from 1 to 40 in the US alone, it is safe to say this treatment will be on the radar of many for the years to come.
Edit: For clarity, this article is not intended to offer ANY medical advice whatsoever. I am simply detailing my shred of experience in the field and sharing it with the world. Be sure to refer to your doctor for medical advice, not blogs.