In treating cancer, the target should be the tumor, not the healthy cells around it. But, until recently, that has been a challenge. The most common type of radiation therapy (using X-rays) subjects the surrounding tissue to the same radiation levels as the cancer cells.
At the new Johns Hopkins Proton Therapy Center, our physicians use a type of pinpoint radiation treatment that destroys cancerous cells while carefully avoiding healthy tissue. Because proton therapy can lower the radiation applied outside the tumor area, it can reduce both short- and long-term side effects ― which is vital for certain patients.
In children, the ability to steer protons just to the cancer site means we can better protect developing brains, hearts and lungs and growing bones. Tumors that are close to other organs in the chest, abdominal and pelvic regions — which is often the case in children’s small bodies — are especially well suited to proton therapy. Proton therapy also can reduce impairment to children’s physical and intellectual development, as well as decrease their chance of developing another cancer years later as a result of treatment.
Adults also can be excellent candidates for proton therapy, particularly if they have tumors near critical organs. The proton team can focus the beam on the exact size and shape of the tumor to kill cells layer by layer. In this way, proton therapy reduces radiation exposure and potential damage to healthy tissue, especially in sensitive areas such as the brain, eyes, spinal cord, heart, major blood vessels and nerves.
Additionally, proton therapy may open doors for patients of any age who have had prior radiation treatments and may be unable to receive additional rounds.
Another important benefit in delivering this form of cancer care is that no hospital stay is required. With proton therapy, patients can expect to spend one hour at an outpatient center every weekday for two to eight weeks — depending on the type of tumor — plus one check-in visit each week to manage any side effects.
To extend these benefits in clinical care, experts at our center are also gathering anonymous, patient-specific data on the outcomes of the proton treatments we deliver. This information goes into a database ― built by a Johns Hopkins researcher ― that doctors can access to correlate side effects to very specific regions treated with radiation and, thereby, improve treatment for tumors of similar sizes or locations.
By combining expert care and research ingenuity, Johns Hopkins is leading the conversation around proton therapy, creating more targeted treatment plans and redefining the future of cancer care for countless patients and their families.