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Because proton therapy is so targeted, it can work very well for treating cancer in children. Children’s bodies are more sensitive to radiation than adults’ bodies. This puts them at higher risk for serious short- and long-term side effects, like growth and development problems or secondary tumors (cancers that are caused by treatment) later in life. But with proton therapy, we can reduce these risks.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center – Proton Therapy has radiation oncologists who specialize in proton therapy for children. We work closely with Seattle Children’s medical oncologists, surgeons, anesthesiologists and other specialists, as well as your child’s referring physician.
— Cora, childhood cancer patient
Here is some basic information about proton therapy and how treatment happens at Fred Hutch.
Physicians usually recommend proton radiation therapy to treat solid tumors in children because it sends less radiation to healthy tissue than standard radiation therapy does.
Less radiation means fewer short- and long-term side effects and lower risk for serious problems that may result from treatment. Studies show that proton therapy may help protect children from development problems, growth delays, lower IQ, cancer forming in other parts of their body and other health problems, compared to standard X-ray radiation.
Medulloblastoma is a common childhood cancer that usually starts in the lower part of the brain in the back of the skull. It often spreads to other parts of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Proton therapy can be a good treatment option because it sends less radiation to the heart, lungs and abdomen compared to standard radiation therapy. Less radiation to these vital organs lowers the chance that your child will have health problems years later.
Standard X-ray radiation therapy for childhood brain cancer can have serious side effects. For example, if radiation hits a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, it might affect chemicals (neurohormones) that are made there. This can affect your child’s levels of growth and thyroid hormones — and how well they grow and develop in the future. The goal with proton radiation therapy is to lower the risk that radiation will harm healthy parts of your child’s brain.
Physicians prefer protons over standard radiation therapy for many different childhood cancers.
These are some of the many childhood cancers that may be treated with protons:
Depending on your child’s age, they may need anesthesia to make them go to sleep before each proton therapy session. Anesthesia makes sure your child will hold still so their treatment is accurate.
For proton therapy to be precise, the patient needs to be in the exact same position for each treatment and hold very still. To help with this, the care team uses tools like bean bags and masks that keep your child in one place (immobilization devices). Even so, holding still can be hard for very young children.
If your child has a hard time staying in one place, their physician may suggest general anesthesia, a medicine that will make your child fall asleep before a procedure. Anesthesiologists from Seattle Children’s, who specialize in working with children, provide our anesthesia services.
Although some children may need anesthesia for the entire treatment time, we offer a program for some children aged five and older to encourage them to avoid or wean off the need for anesthesia. We have a child life specialist and other experts who can help your child with this. Anesthesia is not available for adult patients.
At our proton therapy facility, your family will be able to see a child life specialist for support. We encourage you to reach out to them any time during your child’s proton therapy care.
We understand that your child’s cancer can be very challenging for your whole family, but you’re not alone. We have a skilled and caring child life specialist to help you. Child life specialists are pediatric health care professionals. They work with children and families in hospitals and other settings. They’re here to help you and your child understand what is happening. Seattle Children’s also offers counseling.
A child life specialist can:
If your child will be starting treatment or is already in treatment at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center – Proton Therapy, feel free to reach out to our child life specialist, Erin Behen, directly. Erin can help you learn clear and age-appropriate ways to talk with your child about treatment. Call 206.306.2812.
For resources on preparing your child for proton therapy, check out our coloring books and teen guides on the Resources page.
When your child asks questions about cancer or treatment, be honest. If you are not open with them, their mind may come up with ideas that are worse than the truth. Here are some tips and resources to support you in talking with your child. For more support, please call our child life specialist, Erin Behen, at 206.306.2812.
Our child life specialist and other team members made coloring books to help your child know what to expect at our proton therapy facility. You can download a printable version based on your child’s needs.
This guidebook was made to help your teenager understand what they can expect when getting proton therapy care at Fred Hutch. Our goal is to help teens feel more comfortable with the proton therapy process and encourage them to ask questions.
Our proton therapy team is here not only to treat your disease, but to listen to you and take care of you and your family. They are experts in proton therapy who focus on giving you personalized radiation treatment and who understand your questions, needs and concerns.
As a child life specialist, Erin works with children to develop coping mechanisms, discuss treatments and help parents figure out the best ways to support their children during treatment. Her day may include helping caregivers decide whether a child requires sedation, and if so, preparing the child for it; playing with kids to open up communication and answer questions; giving children choices and a voice in their treatment; and helping them get accustomed to the equipment, processes and side effects.