The Power of Protons for Pediatric Brain Tumors

Sameer Keole, M.D. Medical Director, ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Oklahoma City

When a child is diagnosed with cancer it is devastating for the entire family. The good news is that cure rates for childhood cancer are at nearly 80 percent thanks to ongoing research that has improved the diagnosis and treatment of pediatric cancers. There are more than 250,000 childhood cancer survivors now living in the United States, which gives us all hope.

For pediatric cancers, one of the most promising treatment options is proton therapy, an alternative in many cases to radiation treatment but without many of the side effects that commonly occur.  Proton therapy has been used for more than 50 years, is FDA-approved and covered by most insurance, but it has had limited availability until recently. With more centers opening across the country, this important treatment option is becoming more accessible to many more young patients.

The ability of protons to precisely target and treat a tumor makes proton therapy an ideal treatment option for a broad range of tumors, especially brain tumors including medulloblastoma, craniopharyngiom, gliomas and ependyomas and many of the pediatric cancers.  In addition to being precise, the proton beam can be controlled so that its cancer killing energy is deposited directly in the tumor, causing less damage to healthy tissue and nearby organs than X-ray radiation and thus, fewer short- and long-term side effects.

Proton therapy can be particularly effective in children. Since their bodies are still growing, children are more sensitive to the damage caused by radiation.  Clinical studies from Massachusetts General Hospital evaluating proton therapy in children have reported excellent results in controlling tumors, reducing damage to healthy tissue and lowering the risk of tumors recurring or appearing later in life. Research also has shown that proton therapy can significantly reduce the risk of developmental and growth delays and abnormalities, reductions in IQ and other complications often associated with standard X-ray radiation. Another Massachusetts General study presented at this year’s American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) scientific meeting found that neurocognitive outcomes were stable two years following proton therapy, and that results were more favorable than with standard radiation treatment.

Learn More about Proton Therapy

Proton therapy is a non-invasive, painless treatment that is performed in a dedicated proton therapy center and does not require an overnight stay in the hospital. Treatments are typically given five days a week for four to eight weeks, depending on the tumor and its location.

Proton therapy is available at seven centers in the United States with additional centers under construction and planned across the country.

There are a variety of educational materials available – including what types of brain and pediatric tumors can be treated by protons and questions to ask a doctor when considering proton therapy. You can also request a consultation at a proton treatment center to determine if this therapy might be an appropriate treatment option.

The most important thing to remember after hearing a diagnosis of cancer is that treatments today offer a great deal of hope. We have become increasingly sophisticated in our ability to fight this disease and today we celebrate our ability to turn patients into survivors.

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