Proton cancer treatment information


Proton therapy uses a high energy beam of protons to deliver a precise dose of radiation to the tumour only, which destroys cancer cells, with minimal effect on any other tissue. This is in direct contrast to conventional treatment of high dosage radiation which in addition to attacking the tumour, also damages adjacent tissue. Proton therapy kills cancer cells without exposing patients to side effects which may result from traditional radiation treatment. Is Proton Therapy still in an experimental stage? Definitely not, in spite of the fact that more studies are constantly underway. In 1988, proton therapy was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat proton cancer treatment patients.

This approval was first sought in the 1950’s, and in 2000, medical insurance companies began covering the costs of the procedure. To date, more than 90,000 people worldwide have received proton therapy treatment at centres in various countries. At present, treatment is available in Europe, Japan, China, Korea, and the United States – where there are view site treatment centres in most of the major cities. There are currently no facilities available in the U.K. or Africa, for proton therapy treatment. It has however been announced that treatment will be on offer in the U.K. in approximately 5 years from now. In South Africa there is a progressive laboratory in Faure, a town near to Cape Town, which is equipped to handle only minor cases. A presentation was recently made to the Health Minister proposing that the government invest in the building of a dedicated proton therapy facility. After a private tour of the laboratory facilities, the Minister agreed that future planning is needed for the ever-growing number of non-communicable diseases, including cancer. Impressed by what he saw, he also noted that this would be the first such facility on the African continent if plans went ahead. How does proton therapy differ from conventional X-ray radiation treatment? Proton beam therapy offers an alternative choice for patients and though it is not more effective than other treatments, there is a much reduced risk of side effects. If a tumour needs to be treated, conventional X-rays and proton beam therapy, do not dispense radiation in the same way. This is because of the physical differences in their properties.

  • X-rays consist of electromagnetic waves without any mass or charge, which penetrate the surrounding body tissue as well as the tumour.

To provide the right amount of radiation to the tumour, X-rays also irradiate much of the surrounding cancer free tissue. This un-needed radiation gives rise to side effects such as burnt skin, damage to adjacent organs etc.

  • Protons consist of large, positively charged particles that penetrate to a finite depth. The beams enter the patient’s body, dispensing a low dosage until it reaches the targeted site of the tumour, when a strong proton dose is given. To make certain that the tumour is completely destroyed, additional smaller doses of protons are provided, with almost no radiation damage to other areas.