Proton Therapy for Gastrointestinal Cancers

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Proton therapy is an advanced treatment that sends radiation to the exact size, shape and depth of your tumor. It allows your physician to treat your cancer while helping to protect nearby tissue. This makes proton therapy a good option for treating tumors near healthy organs, like gastrointestinal (GI) tumors.

What is Proton Therapy? with Dr. Ramesh Rengan

Types of Gastrointestinal Tumors Treated with Proton Therapy

Proton radiation therapy may be an option for people with a wide range of GI cancers, including:

  • Esophageal cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Pancreatic and bile duct cancers
  • Liver cancer and liver metastases
  • Rectal cancer
  • Anal cancer
  • Some cancers that have come back or spread to distant parts of the body

Tough on Your Tumor. Easier on Your Body.

To treat GI tumors, physicians often use radiation therapy along with chemotherapy or surgery. This combination can be hard on patients, and some patients can’t have standard X-ray radiation therapy because it would cause too much harm to the healthy tissue near their tumor. For these patients, proton radiation therapy can be a good choice. It sends more radiation to the tumor with a goal of sending much less to nearby tissue and organs, often causing fewer side effects.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center providers Jing Zeng, MD, and Smith Apisarnthanarax MD, have studied proton therapy for esophageal cancers. Their work showed that physicians can safely treat esophageal cancer with proton therapy using pencil-beam scanning and a single proton beam that goes through the patient’s back.

brain scan
These pictures show an example of treatment for a brain tumor comparing protons and X-ray radiation. The colored areas get radiation. The black, gray and white areas do not. With proton therapy (left), less healthy tissue is exposed to radiation. With standard X-ray radiation therapy (right), more healthy tissue is exposed.

Active Breathing Coordinator

Tumors in your abdomen tend to move when you breathe. This can make radiation therapy less exact. To keep your proton beam on target, we use a device called the Active Breathing Coordinator. It helps you hold your breath briefly — and keep your tumor in the same place — while the proton beam is on. (You are always in control and can release the hold to breathe, if you need to.) 

Bragg Peak Graph
With X-ray radiation therapy (dark blue line), the radiation dose peaks soon after entering the body. Then it gradually decreases, often long before reaching the tumor. Healthy tissue around the tumor receives much of the dose instead. With proton therapy (medium blue and purple lines), treatment conforms more closely to the tumor. This means less radiation is deposited in the healthy tissue in front of the tumor compared to X-ray therapy. Almost none is deposited in the healthy tissue beyond the tumor.

Proton Therapy Facts

  • Pencil-beam scanning (PBS) lets us match your treatment to the size, shape and depth of your tumor. PBS “paints” your tumor with a lot of very thin, very precise beams of protons. The beams are accurate down to millimeters.
  • Proton therapy lowers the amount of radiation that reaches nearby tissue and organs.
  • Proton therapy may be an option for you even if you’ve already had radiation for cancer. In fact, it may be your only option for getting more radiation treatment.
  • Treatments are safe, noninvasive (no cuts to the skin are needed) and painless for most patients, helping you recover faster and keep living your life.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved proton therapy for clinical use in 1988. More than 200,000 people worldwide have had this form of treatment.

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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 treatment and who understand your questions, needs and concerns.

Featured Stories

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Michael Mendiola almost gave up – until he talked to “Dr. A” “I recommended proton therapy both times for Mr. Mendiola because he had multiple prior treatments to the liver,” says Apisarnthanarax. July 28, 2023
The Beam: Particle therapy conference comes to Seattle, Obliteride recap and meet Candice Day-Darby Our leaders will present at PTCOG-NA; staff share thoughts on Obliteride; meet our patient access lead August 23, 2023
Wildlife photographer Kevin Murphy chooses proton therapy for prostate cancer Kevin watched and waited seven years with low-grade prostate cancer. When it was time for treatment, he chose proton therapy. August 23, 2023