Proton Therapy for Head and Neck Cancers

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Proton therapy is an advanced treatment that delivers radiation to the exact size, shape and depth of your tumor. It allows your physician to treat your cancer while helping to protect nearby healthy tissue, like your brain, eyes and spine.

Hanks's Voice/ Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center - Proton Therapy

"The treatment choices can be overwhelming. However, after careful deliberation with my physicians I decided on proton therapy because it could target the cancer more precisely while protecting as much surrounding healthy tissue as possible."

— Mark, head and neck patient

Tough on Your Tumor. Easier on Your Body.

For head and neck tumors, treatment usually means surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. When it comes to radiation, proton therapy provides a safer option. It lowers the risk of side effects such as vision loss, hearing loss, trouble swallowing and dry mouth.

With standard X-ray radiation therapy, the radiation dose is highest right where the X-rays enter your body. The X-rays keep giving off radiation as they go through your tumor and the tissue beyond. With proton radiation therapy, treatment is sent right to the tumor. The goal is for less radiation to reach your nearby tissue.

head and neck scan
These pictures show treatment for head and neck cancer. 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.

Proton therapy uses a unique feature of protons: They give off the most radiation right before they come to a stop. Then the radiation falls to zero. That’s how we target treatment to your tumor and no further. 

More precision means less damage to healthy cells in your brain, neck, eyes, sinuses, vocal cords and salivary glands. This can mean a faster recovery and fewer short- and long-term side effects.

If you have head or neck cancer, the radiation oncologists at our proton therapy facility can decide if proton therapy is right for you and tell you more about this option.

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.

Types of Head and Neck Cancer Treated with Proton Therapy

Proton therapy may be an option for people with a wide range of head and neck cancers, including:

  • Base-of-skull tumors (such as tumors related to the anterior, middle and posterior cranial fossa; the sphenoid; and the temporal bone)
  • Sinonasal cancers (tumors in the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity)
  • Cancers near the eyes and orbits (eye sockets)
  • Nasopharyngeal cancers
  • Small/early oropharyngeal cancers (tumors around the tonsils and tongue base)
  • Some salivary gland tumors (tumors of the parotid, submandibular and minor salivary glands of the upper aerodigestive tract) 
  • Complex skin cancers that involve cranial nerves or lymph nodes of the neck 
  • Unknown primary cancers (after a thorough surgical workup)

Proton therapy may also be an option for some people who have already had radiation therapy.

Pencil-Beam Scanning

Our radiation oncologists use pencil-beam scanning (PBS) to treat patients with proton therapy. PBS “paints” the tumor with a lot of very thin, very exact beams of protons. The beams are accurate down to millimeters. PBS sends very fast pulses of protons to each planned spot within the tumor until the entire cancer is treated. This method can lower the amount of radiation to healthy tissue even more. 

Proton Therapy Facts

  • Compared to standard radiation therapy, proton therapy may reduce damage to the mouth, eyes, optic nerves, salivary glands and other organs. It could lower your risk of side effects like vision, hearing and smell loss.
  • Patients who get proton therapy instead of standard radiation therapy are about half as likely to have severe weight loss or need a feeding tube.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.