Protons perfect treatment choice for pediatric cancer


They have come from as close as down the road and as far away as China. Their cases have ranged from highly curable to palliative care. They light up lobby with laugher and courage. And they most clearly show cancer for the monstrosity it is.

September is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month.

And while kids getting cancer is not something we like to think about, it’s all too real for the more than 10,000 children who will be diagnosed with cancer this year.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death for children. But survival rates have improved dramatically as research dollars and physician experience have improved treatment regiments. Today, more than 80 percent of children who’ve been diagnosed with cancer survive five years or more. Back in the 1970s, just 58 percent of children reach their five year anniversary in remission.

If there was ever a reason for proton therapy, it’s kids.

Protons are universally recognized as the standard of care for many pediatric cancers that require radiation. Healthcare providers and insurance companies recognize children’s young and developing bodies and brains must be spared the damaging work of radiation to the greatest extent possible in order for them to live long and healthy lives.

Why protons for pediatric cancer?

Cancers that affect children include: leukemia, brain and spinal cord tumors, neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor, lymphoma (both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin), rhabdomyosarcoma, retinoblastoma and bone cancer.

Tumors that form on a child’s brain, head, neck, spinal cord or near the heart, lungs and other areas that can be significantly damaged by radiation are considered good candidates for proton therapy. Unlike conventional radiation, which utilizes photons whose energy is not easily harnessed, protons by nature expend their energy at a fixed point and travel no farther. This limits the radiation dispensed to kill the cancer cells from forever damaging healthy cells. This damage can result in long-term health problems such as heart disease and secondary cancers, particularly for those who have full lives ahead of them.

Provision CARES Proton Therapy Center has treated 42 pediatric patients with brain, bone, spinal, ocular, and soft tissue cancers.

From China with love: parents travel to Provision Proton Therapy Center from the other side of the world

Tina Zhu and her parents traveled all the way from Shanghai so Tina could receive proton therapy for a tumor doctors found on her back. Proton therapy centers are planned for the world’s largest nation—including through partnerships with Provision—but none have yet opened. Tina’s parents wanted the best care for their only child.

“We didn’t want to stay in Shanghai,” the Zhus said through an interpretor. “We wanted treatment quickly, and we wanted the best treatment. We decided to come to the United States.”

The Zhus chose Provision after considering other centers in Florida and New Jersey. Provision’s Knoxville, Tenn., location offered affordable accommodation, reasonable cost for treatment and had a children’s hospital located nearby.

“We had good expectations, but when we got here it was even beyond our expectations,” said Angela Zhu. “All the doctors and nurses are very caring. It relieved the pressure.”

Provision meets Kentucky girl’s needs: Provision offers a nearby solution with lots of personal care

Emma Ferrell was from China too, but her trip to Provision was a more circuitous one. She was adopted as baby by her Kentucky parents, joining a seven-year-old sister, also from China, and the two older biological sons of her parents Linda and David.

More than 10 years later, an MRI revealed a brain tumor encasing her entire left ventricle and making its way toward the right.

Proton therapy wasn’t part of the recommended treatment of Emma’s doctors but Linda did research of her own and discovered the treatment option particularly suited pediatric patients.

Originally she planned to take Emma to Seattle, but she called Provision CARES Proton Therapy—then newly opened—and spoke with staff about Emma’s tumor.

The cancer was “relatively rare and very aggressive,” Linda said.

“One of the biggest reasons we chose Provision is that they really did their due diligence,” Ferrell says. The doctor “spent a lot of time talking to experts who knew about Emma’s cancer.” He ultimately concluded she was a candidate for proton therapy.

After surgery and chemotherapy, including months spent in and out of the hospital, treatment at Provision provided welcome relief. Emma responded well to seven weeks of proton therapy, experienced only minor fatigue and retained a good appetite most of time, gaining weight she had lost during chemo.

“It was pretty wonderful,” Linda said at the end of her treatment. “Emma’s been through quite a bit over the last year. With the treatment at Provision, it was pretty easy. I’m a huge advocate for proton therapy.