The Beam: Navigating anxiety and cancer and other proton therapy highlights

June is National Cancer Survivor Month. Learn about anxiety and cancer; read the latest highlights from the 2023 National Proton Conference; meet dosimetrist Christopher Gratton.

For National Cancer Survivor Month, we talk with our social worker at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center – Proton Therapy about anxiety and cancer, and tools you can use to help. We introduce you to our new dosimetrist, Christopher Gratton, and bring you highlights from the recent national proton therapy conference.

Navigating anxiety and cancer

Elizabeth Darlington
Elizabeth Darlington, LICSW, proton therapy social worker

One-third of patients treated for cancer in hospitals have a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression according to Mental Health America. Patients who are diagnosed with cancer have an increased risk of developing mental health issues, or having preexisting issues worsen. And it’s no wonder – receiving a cancer diagnosis can be very difficult.

“All people experience anxiety at some point in their lives,” says our proton therapy social worker, Elizabeth Darlington, LICSW. “Having cancer and undergoing cancer treatment can certainly increase the risk.”

Everyone experiences anxiety differently: as nausea, increased heart rate or chest tightening or something else. Darlington has strategies to help patients deal with anxiety and its effects.

“The first step is to identify and name that you are experiencing anxiety,” she says. “There is an expression we use, ‘Name it to tame it.’ So, you might say to yourself, ‘I am experiencing these sensations right now, and that’s how I usually feel when I’m anxious. I must be feeling anxious.’ By naming it out loud, you can bring the anxiety to your conscious awareness and you can better deal with it.”

The second step is to stop labeling these feelings as bad or wrong or judging yourself for feeling anxious. It’s a natural feeling and should pass over time.

“I tell patients to look at anxiety as an uninvited guest in their house,” says Darlington. “You didn’t want the guest there, but you can make room for it. It’s showing up for you right now, and that’s OK. Eventually, the guest will leave!”

Third, take some steps that help soothe you. Just as people experience anxiety differently, solutions for anxiety aren’t one-size-fits-all. Stress-reducing techniques include deep breathing, taking a walk, talking with a friend, family member or counselor and journaling. Some people take a moment to meditate, lie down and close their eyes, read or watch a funny video. Pets can also be a great stress reliever. Identify what helps you to relax and use that when you’re feeling stressed.

According to Adult Mental Health, an exercise called the 3-3-3 rule can help center your mind and bring you into the present moment.

  1. Name three things you see.
  2. Name three things you hear.
  3. Move three different body parts.

Patients who are feeling anxious or depressed can reach out to a member of their care team, such as a nurse or social worker. They can provide resources or refer you to the psychiatry team, if necessary.

“Acknowledging that we all need help with coping is extremely healthy,” says Darlington. “Undergoing cancer treatment is not easy for anyone, and we want to know how we can best support you so that you can feel better. Treating a mental health issue can even improve your outcome odds” (National Cancer Institute).

If you or someone you know is having a mental health crisis, such as thoughts of imminent suicide or self harm, please call the King County crisis line at 866.427.4747 or the Suicide Prevention lifeline at 800.273.TALK for free, confidential support, 24 hours a day.

Highlights from the 2023 National Proton Conference

2023 National Proton Conference
Jennifer Maggiore, NAPT executive director, at the 2023 National Proton Conference

The National Association for Proton Therapy (NAPT) held its 11th annual conference in May. The mission of the NAPT is to educate and raise public awareness about the clinical benefits of proton therapy. It serves as a resource center for patients, health care providers, insurers, cancer centers, Medicare, the U.S. Congress and the news media.

The conference is an opportunity for providers and administrators who work at proton centers around the country to meet for continuing education and networking.

“We brought together 288 attendees from every corner of the particle therapy community to gain insight into everything from emerging clinical research and operational efficiencies to navigating insurance authorizations and policy-based advocacy,” says Jennifer Maggiore, NAPT executive director.

Here are some highlights from the conference:

The most popular session was the Patient Voices Panel: Perspectives on Survivorship. Three patients shared their stories about navigating their cancer treatment and the lifesaving, life-changing impacts proton therapy has made on their quality of life after cancer. 

In a PTCOG-NA special session, physicians from various institutions spoke about hypofractionation in proton therapy. Hypofractionation is a treatment regimen where the total radiation dose prescribed by the physician is divided into fewer, larger doses and treatments are given over a shorter period of time. It is as effective as traditional proton treatment regimens without any additional side effects. As well as reducing the number of total treatments, the benefits of hypofractionation include a reduced financial burden for patients, lower costs for health care systems and improved access to radiotherapy by increasing the total number of patients who can be treated, especially in low- and middle-income countries, according to a recent article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology

The association also released findings from their annual survey at the conference. “We found that over the past year, the number of patients treated with proton therapy continued its upward trajectory, and we saw an encouraging expansion in the use of proton therapy for more cancer types,” says JJ Vitale, NAPT director of communications. “Notably, there has been an upsurge in the percentage of patients with head and neck cancer and breast cancer who benefited from proton therapy. This shift signifies the evolving landscape of research, as evidence continues to emerge showcasing the value and efficacy of proton therapy across various cancer types.”

“While the survey brings to light many positive developments, it also highlights persistent challenges in patient access to proton therapy. Commercial insurance denials remain a significant obstacle requiring appeals, and lengthy prior authorization processes can cause delays in starting treatment.”

Other key sessions included Innovations in Health Policy and Payment Reform, The Evolution of Research and its Impacts on Patient Access, Disparities in Authorization by Disease Site and Insurance Type and Breaking Barriers to Proton Therapy Access: Exploring Legislative Solutions and Strategies.

By chance, one of our proton therapy graduates, Amy Delaney, happened to be at the same conference center as the NAPT conference. She noted: “It’s funny how the stars can align … this week I’ve been attending the fantastic Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) Summit in Salt Lake City ... I discovered that at the same time and location, The National Association for Proton Therapy was also having their annual conference.,” she said on LinkedIn. “In October of 2018, I went through proton therapy for ocular melanoma, a very rare kind of eye cancer. I was able to meet a few of their attendees and thank them, from the bottom of my heart, for all they are doing in the field of proton therapy, because the treatment I had at [Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center] Proton Therapy saved my life.”

NAPT also introduced their new Patient Advocate Community, which has been formed to bring patients together to advocate for increased awareness of the clinical benefits of proton therapy and patient access to this lifesaving, life-changing care. If you are or were a patient treated with proton therapy and would like to learn how you can get involved, email

Meet Christopher Gratton, Medical Dosimetrist

Chris and Kat
Chris and his fiancée, Kat

Christopher Gratton, a medical dosimetrist, recently joined the proton therapy team at Fred Hutch. As a medical dosimetrist, Gratton takes the physician’s planning goals and creates a precise treatment plan for the patients. His job is to calculate the best possible solution to deliver the prescribed radiation dose to the disease site while paying special attention to sparing as much normal tissue and as many healthy organs as possible.

Originally from Boise, Idaho, Gratton moved to the Seattle area in 2010 to learn radiation therapy at Bellevue College. He worked for eight years as a radiation therapist before he became a medical dosimetrist. To become a dosimetrist, a person usually takes classes in radiation therapy physics, radiation oncology, medical imaging, cross-sectional anatomy and math to obtain a degree. After that, you go through a certification for dosimetry.

The field is near and dear to Gratton. He went through radiation therapy himself at age 16, when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“Now, 22 years later, I’m in the position to take part in something I’m passionate about because of my history, and I am also doing something that uses my technical and problem-solving skills. It’s the perfect combination for me.”

Gratton says he’s privileged and honored to be a part of the dosimetry team at Fred Hutch’s proton therapy facility because of the reverence he feels for our physicians and proton therapy.

“When the opportunity presented itself, I just couldn’t turn it down,” says Gratton. “It feels like home. Proton therapy offers something very special to the radiation oncology world, with its own unique advantages, and it’s something I wanted to be a part of.”

Although he only joined our proton therapy facility in March, Gratton has worked with our physicians as a radiation therapist for the past eight years at UW Medicine, and he has aspired to work at the Fred Hutch proton therapy facility for some years.

Outside of work, Gratton loves spending time with his family, including his fiancée, Kat, and their three children. He and Kat met through his work at UW Medicine. He also enjoys sports. He snowboards, plays golf and basketball, and loves anywhere with a beach.

Say “hi” to Gratton if you have a chance.

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