Proton Therapy Treatment for Lung Cancer


Lung cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in North America among both men and women. Smoking is the leading cause of most lung cancers, whether experienced from smoking directly or from secondhand smoke, and is believed to be the result of damage to cells that line the lungs. A smoker’s risk increases with the length of time and number of cigarettes smoked.


Unlike many cancers, lung cancer typically doesn’t exhibit signs and symptoms until the disease has advanced significantly. These symptoms may include:

  • Change in “smoker’s cough”
  • Coughing up blood
  • A persistent, new cough
  • Headache
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hoarseness

If one or more of these symptoms occur, see your doctor immediately. As mentioned before, these symptoms do not appear in the earliest stages of lung cancer, so swift action should be taken.


In order to diagnose lung cancer, a physician may x-ray lungs, looking for an abnormal mass, or use CT scans which could reveal lesions in the lungs. Oftentimes, patients are producing mucus when coughing, which can be examined by microscope and at times, may reveal the presence of lung cancer. Biopsies are often completed as well, a doctor removing a sample of the abnormal cells to test for the presence of cancer.


Non-invasive and painless, proton therapy allows physicians to provide doses of radiation to specific areas, controlling the depth of the protons emitted and reducing the impact on the surrounding tissue. Pencil beam scanning capabilities provide precise doses of radiation to targeted areas. As a result, patients experience fewer side effects.

With traditional photon radiation, side effects such as nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue and significant weight loss are common, appearing in up to 34 percent of treatment situations. However, with proton therapy, these side effects are nearly eliminated, with less than five percent of treatment situations resulting in similar side effects. Patients will have an improved recovery experience.

Doctors and scientists have been studying the results of proton therapy in the treatment of Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). One study in particular showed that patients with stage III NSCLC who were treated with proton therapy experienced lower rates of pneumonitis and esophagitis (inflammations of the lungs and esophagus) compared to patients treated with x-ray radiation therapy such as three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy (3-D CRT) and intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). At the same time, proton therapy achieved similar efficacy as 3-D CRT and IMRT.

With proton therapy, much of the healthy tissue and critical organs surrounding the cancer is spared from receiving additional radiation. This is a major concern when it comes to radiation treatment for lung cancer because the cancer may be close to your heart, healthy lung, and other critical organs. The unique properties of protons allow proton radiation to better conform to your cancer, reducing excess radiation to the healthy tissues and organs around it. In the chart below, the grey/white areas indicate no radiation exposure, while the colored areas indicate radiation exposure.

Proton therapy may be an option if you:

  • Have stage lll NSCLC
  • Need concurrent chemotherapy
  • had prior radiation therapy
  • Have limited or poor pulmonary function

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For more information on proton therapy for patients with lung cancer