September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Matt Ladra, MD, Pediatric Radiation Oncologist and Director of Pediatric Services, discusses the benefits of treating certain pediatric cancers with proton beam therapy.
Each year in the US there are more than 10,000 new cases of pediatric cancer, and roughly 1/3 of these children will require radiation therapy. Radiation is an extremely effective form of treatment and in many cases provides the only option for cure. This is especially true for tumors that arise from the bones, muscles, and organs of children, termed “solid tumor cancers.” Unfortunately, radiation can inhibit the normal growth and development of the uninvolved areas surrounding these tumors, and therefore minimizing the amount of excess radiation delivered is of the utmost importance to pediatric radiation oncologists.
Proton therapy is a wonderful tool for treating children in whom radiation therapy is indicated. The physical properties of protons significantly reduce the radiation dose delivered to healthy tissue and organs, often by 2-3 times what would be delivered with conventional radiation. Since the brains and bodies of children are still developing and growing, this translates into fewer long-term side effects and an improved quality of life moving forward after treatment. With advances in surgical techniques, chemotherapy, and radiation delivery, close to 70% of all children with solid tumor cancers will be long-term survivors. Therefore, the incorporation of techniques that can minimize side effects, such as proton therapy, into pediatric cancer treatment is now more important than ever.
Proton therapy has been used for more than 30 years to treat children. Previously, proton therapy had only available in a small number of institutions due to the high cost of building and maintaining a center and the difficulty in managing the technology. In the last 10 years, improved proton technology and reduced costs have let to an emergence of new proton centers all over the country. Whereas in 2004 there were only three open centers in the US, today there are currently 14 open centers and many more opening in the near future. Proton therapy is most commonly used in pediatric tumors of the brain and spine, such as medulloblastoma, ependymoma, germ cell tumors, and low grade gliomas, but it can be beneficial in any tumor that arises in close proximity to vital structures like the heart, lung, kidneys, and reproductive organs. The Provision Center for Proton Therapy is the first proton center to open in Tennessee and will join the University of Florida Proton Institute as the only two centers in the southeast treating pediatric patients.
Matt Ladra is a Radiation Oncologist and Director of Pediatric Services