When Erin Grant was 31, she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and told she had a year to live. Chemo, radiation, and other treatments staved off that prognosis for three years, but then the cancer spread to her spine, and her Miami doctor told her nothing more could be done.
But Grant decided to travel to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to undergo an innovative treatment known as "proton therapy," in a last-ditch effort to save her life.
Now she is cancer-free, and her experience spotlights the hope that proton therapy is bringing to breast cancer survivors.
“When I got the news, I couldn’t believe it. I even asked my doctor to double check the name on the scan to make sure it was mine,” Grant tells Newsmax Health.
As millions observe Breast Cancer Awareness Month, doctors and patient advocates are spotlighting new ways of treating the disease.
Proton therapy, known also as proton beam therapy, is not new – the idea of using this type of nuclear medicine to treat cancer has been around for decades. But it's only coming to the forefront now, Dr. Brian Chon tells Newsmax Health.
“Over the past 20 years, there’s been innovations in three areas – technology, imaging, and computer software – so we finally have the technology to deliver the protons to where they need to go,” says Chon, medical director at ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Somerset, N.J., where Grant was treated.
Like standard radiation, proton therapy is a type of external-beam radiation, but it uses protons instead of X-ray beans.
Protons are positively charged particles that, at high energy, can destroy cancer cells. When it comes to treatment, the main advantage is that proton therapy is more precise.
“A proton beam can come in and stop where we need it to stop, whereas conventional X-ray beams behave like bullets. They enter with a lot of energy, traverse through, and they leave with a lot of energy," says Chon.
“This means they do a collateral damage on the way to and after they strike the tumor.”
Proton therapy is currently one of the hottest trends in cancer treatment. There are 24 proton therapy centers in the U.S., with 11 more in various stages of development, the National Association for Proton Therapy says.
Because the use of protons to treat cancer has not been widespread, there is a lack of studies on it. But this is changing, says Chon, who is overseeing three on breast cancer alone.
Proton therapy has been in longer use for a variety of cancers, including prostate, brain, and pediatric cancers, so more research is emerging – and it’s looking good, he notes.
For instance, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the use of proton therapy on patients suffering from late-stage pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, and non-small cell lung and chordoma and chondrosarcoma, which are sarcomas.
These types of cancers are difficult to treat cancers with high mortality rates.
These studies found those people treated with proton therapy experienced fewer side effects and also lived longer.
For pancreatic cancer, where survival time is measured in months, survival was in some cases doubled.
In the case of the sarcomas, some patients were still alive after the last checkup, said the researchers, whose work was presented last year at the American Society for Radiating Oncology (ASTRO) annual meeting.
Chemotherapy and conventional radiation destroy cancer cells, as well as healthy cells in the body, and it is the latter that results in adverse side effects as nausea, fatigue, and hair loss.
But proton therapy is aimed only at the cancer cells, so less healthy tissue is destroyed.
“This means there are fewer side effects and a better quality of life for patients,” says Chon.
Proton therapy is also less likely to cause secondary cancers, which can occur with conventional radiation, he says.
“While radiation is very effective on tumor cells can cause secondary cancers, which can create life-threatening and morbid side effects so in a quest to do no harm in medicine, proton therapy has come to the forefront,” he notes.
But, when it comes to breast cancer, there is a third big advantage – proton therapy is less likely to damage the heart.
It’s long been known that radiation – along with some popular chemotherapy drugs – can harm the heart. So a woman may be cured of her breast cancer, only to suffer a heart attack, or face other heart problems later.
Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that radiation can raise a woman’s heart risk rises by 7.4 percent.
Another study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, estimated breast cancer radiation raised a woman’s risk of heart attack up to 3.5 percent, with the risk highest to women who have left-sided breast cancer.
“The reality is that most of our breast cancer patients who are receiving radiation for breast cancer are also receiving cardiotoxic chemotherapy drugs, so there can be a double whammy effect on the heart,” says Chon.
Proton therapy is more costly than traditional radiation. But Chon expects that to change as more centers come on line and more research is published.
“The biggest barrier we have right now is awareness,” says Chon. “Very few people are aware that proton is an option, and they really need to be advocate for their own health and seek it out.”
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