Is proton therapy a breakthrough discovery for cancer patients?

New research finds that while cure rates for X-ray therapy and proton therapy are the same in the treatment of cancer, the risk of severe side effects is much lower with proton therapy.

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New research suggests that proton therapy may be a better treatment than X-ray radiation for people with cancer. According to estimates from the American Cancer Society, in 2019, doctors will have diagnosed 1,762,450 new cases of, and 606,880 people will have died from the disease.


X-ray radiation is one of the most common therapies for cancer, whether the disease is in its early stages or whether the tumor has spread. Although effective, radiation therapy has a wide range of side effects. These can include fatigue, skin irritation, fever, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, as well as changes in appetite or difficulty eating and swallowing.

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New research suggests that proton therapy, also known as proton beam therapy, may have fewer and less severe side effects than X-ray radiation. Dr. Brian C. Baumann, a radiation oncologist at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, MO, is the lead author of the new study. Dr. Baumann and colleagues will present their findings at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting, which will take place in Chicago, IL.


Side effects risk ‘substantially’ smaller

Dr. Baumann and the team examined almost 1,500 people with various forms of cancer, such as cancer of the lung, brain, and head and neck, as well as gastrointestinal and gynaecological cancers. The patients were receiving a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which is a treatment protocol that usually cures cancer that has not yet spread to the rest of the body. The researchers compared the experiences of patients who received proton chemoradiotherapy with those who received photon — X-ray — chemoradiotherapy.


The researchers also explain why proton therapy is more precise than X-ray therapy and carries less risk of damaging healthy tissue around the tumor. Protons are heavy particles that are positively charged and stop once they reach their target. By contrast, X-ray beams are made of photons, which are particles with almost no mass. The lightness of photons enables them to travel easily through the body, but also through healthy tissue on their way out, after they’ve hit their target.

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The study found that the relative risk of severe side effects within 90 treatment days was two-thirds lower for people who received proton therapy, compared with those who received X-ray radiation. One might suggest that this therapy is godsend for cancer patients braving through their painful and draining radiation therapy.