What Is Proton Beam Therapy?

What Is Proton Beam Therapy?

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Learn what it means to receive proton therapy in this short animation.
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What proton beam therapy is and how it compares to other radiation therapy 

Proton therapy, also called proton beam therapy, is an advanced cancer treatment that involves the use of charged particles called protons, rather than the x-rays used in other forms of radiation therapy. As in other radiation therapies, proton therapy is designed to kill cancer cells through a similar process, by damaging their DNA.  

Because of the unique physical properties of protons, however, doctors can deliver this cancer-fighting energy to a specific depth in the body. Proton therapy typically involves the same number of treatments and the same session times as conventional radiation therapy. 

How proton therapy works at MSK

The first step is a CT or MRI scan to map the tumor in three dimensions. Then our radiation oncologists, working closely with medical physicists, use computer programs to calculate how to deliver the treatment at the precise dose and location through the skin toward the tumor.  

You will receive proton therapy in a special treatment room, where you will be positioned on a treatment table. An immobilization device will make sure you stay in the exact position on the table. 

Cancers we treat with proton therapy

Proton therapy is used at MSK to treat the following cancers:  

Most commonly, proton beam therapy is used at MSK to treat head and neck cancers, but we are increasingly using it to target and treat cancers of the spine, breast, sarcoma, brain, and prostate.

Benefits and side effects of proton therapy

Proton therapy can offer some significant benefits and fewer side effects compared to conventional radiation therapy.

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Proton beam therapy’s precision

MSK radiation oncology experts use pencil beam scanning technology, which is the most advanced and accurate form of proton therapy delivery. Pencil beam scanning allows proton therapy to be delivered in the most-focused form with the smallest diameter and highest precision. This may also allow the use of a higher radiation dose to the tumor, maximizing the chance of destroying it.

Fewer treatment-related side effects of proton beam therapy

With proton therapy, all energy has been released by the time it reaches the tumor site, so there is no dose beyond that point. This can help to reduce the risk of treatment-related side effects due to radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissues, in some cases more than any other form of radiation.  

The most common side effects of external-beam radiation therapy are temporary, in most cases. Ask your care team about possible, including long-term, side effects before your treatment begins.

Where do MSK patients get proton therapy?

Proton therapy is available at a limited number of locations in the United States. MSK doctors deliver the therapy to patients at the New York Proton Center (NYPC), a state-of-the art facility on 126th St. in upper Manhattan in New York City. Learn more about how MSK patients get their proton therapy.

Proton therapy common patient questions and expert answers

Here are answers to some common questions our proton therapy experts hear from patients.

How long do proton treatments last?

Proton therapy treatments usually take about 30 minutes from the time you enter the treatment room to the time you leave.

What is CyberKnife versus proton therapy?

CyberKnife is a brand name for one of several available radiosurgery devices called linear accelerators, which deliver stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) or stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS). MSK uses a similar device, made by a company called Varian, that destroys tumors with extremely precise, very intense doses of radiation. Proton therapy delivers a beam of proton particles that stops at the tumor.

How do I know if I am a candidate for proton therapy?

The key to proton therapy is to know when it truly is the best treatment option. The medical care team at MSK has experience and access to every form of modern radiation therapy and will recommend proton therapy when it is truly the best choice for the patient.

To find out if proton therapy is right for you, call 800-525-2225.

Why choose Memorial Sloan Kettering for proton therapy? 

  • MSK radiation oncologists have vast experience in using proton therapy. Over the last five years, our specialists have used proton therapy to treat more than 2,000 MSK patients with a range of cancers. This is far more than anyone else in the New York City region. MSK’s radiation oncology group has been at the forefront of developing the treatment guidelines and training specialists at other institutions how to properly use protons.
  • Patients at MSK are cared for by a multidisciplinary team of cancer experts — which includes radiation oncologists, medical physicists, oncologists, and surgeons — that is among the most experienced in the world. This team will ensure that each patient receives the optimal treatment for his or her unique case.
  • The MSK radiation oncologists who practice at the New York Proton Center (NYPC) specialize in each type of cancer that can be treated effectively with proton therapy.
  • The NYPC offers pencil beam scanning, the most advanced and accurate form of proton therapy delivery.