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What Is Proton Beam Therapy for Advanced Ovarian Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 20, 2022

Proton beam therapy, or proton therapy, is a type of radiation that destroys tumor cells in your body. This therapy is an option if you have advanced ovarian cancer. Proton therapy doesn’t use X-rays like the other forms of radiation. Instead, this type of therapy uses protons to send beams of high energy to your tumors. The beams target these tumors more precisely than X-ray radiation does.

In typical radiation treatment, the beam goes into your body, through your tumor, and out through the other side of your body. As the radiation moves out of your body, it might harm healthy tissue around your tumor.

But protons are much larger particles than the ones in radiation treatment. This means that they’ll give off more of their energy to the tumor instead of your healthy tissue. Once the protons release their energy to your tumor, they stop. They won’t move out of your body through healthy tissue. This means there’s less of a chance that treatment will affect your bowels, kidneys, bladder, and your pelvic bone marrow.

How Is Proton Beam Therapy Given?

You’ll have this therapy as an outpatient procedure. This means that you’ll get your treatment in a hospital or clinic, but you won’t stay there overnight. You’ll probably need to get many sessions over a period. Some therapy visits may take longer than others.

Proton beams will kill tumor cells layer by layer. The treatment protects the healthy tissue around your tumor while it targets cancerous cells. When you begin your proton beam therapy, your doctor will work with physicists to get the best results. They’ll make sure that the proton beam is right for the size and shape of your tumor.

This means your care team will need to carefully plan your treatment. You might need to do imaging tests like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) before each session. This is so that your doctor can look at the exact location of your tumor. Your team may put marks on your body to show where the beam should go.

You’ll get your actual treatment in a room that has special tools. You’ll lay on a table as the beam delivers the protons to your tumor. Your body's position is very important. Your doctor may take a few minutes to position your body and the proton beam therapy tools. It’ll help the treatment reach the right area. During this process, it’s crucial that you stay still.

When you’re ready to start the treatment, your doctor will leave the room. They’ll operate the proton beam machine from outside the area you’re in. There will be a video camera that allows your care team to see and hear you. You won’t be alone during the treatment.

This process might take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes based on the location, size, and the number of tumors you have. You won’t feel the proton beam when it goes into your body or when it treats your tumor.

What Are the Benefits of Proton Beam Therapy for Advanced Ovarian Cancer?

Despite the drawbacks, proton beam therapy may be an option to consider if you have advanced ovarian cancer for several reasons:

It’s less likely to harm healthy tissue. Proton therapy is less likely to expose the healthy cells around your tumor to radiation. This therapy focuses more on the tumor itself. This is especially the case in sensitive places like your brain, eyes, heart, spinal cord, nerves, and major blood vessels.

It may cause fewer short and long-term side effects. Studies show that proton beam therapy leads to fewer short- and long-term side effects than traditional radiation therapy. Research is ongoing to find out if it may lower your chances of getting another tumor.

One study with data from almost 1,500 adults with cancer compared side effects between the two treatments. About 400 people received proton therapy and the rest received traditional radiation therapy. Experts found that within 90 days of treatment, 301 people (28%) who got traditional radiation had severe side effects, compared to only 45 people (12%) who got proton therapy.

Your day-to-day routine is less likely to be affected. Experts have also found that proton therapy doesn’t interrupt people’s ability to do normal activities like radiation treatment does. People were more likely to be able to do normal activities as well as they could before treatment during proton beam therapy than traditional radiation.

You can use it if other treatments don't work. If you get another tumor after you have had radiation for ovarian cancer, proton beam therapy may help.

What Are the Downsides of Proton Beam Therapy for Advanced Ovarian Cancer?

As with any type of treatment, there are some drawbacks to proton beam therapy. They include:

Possible side effects. After you get proton beam therapy for advanced ovarian cancer, you might feel tired. The side effects of this treatment are like that of other forms of radiation treatment. But the good news is the symptoms tend to be less intense than traditional radiation. This is because proton therapy uses less radiation exposure.

Your post-treatment symptoms might develop slowly over time. They could include:

  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Loss of hair in the treatment area
  • Red or sore skin around the treatment area that may look and feel similar to a sunburn

Based on the area that you have treated, you might also have a headache or eating and digestion issues.

The cost of proton beam therapy. The tools used for this treatment are expensive. Check with your insurance provider before you get this form of therapy. They may be able to offset the cost. Some medical offices also have financial counselors that can help you find a way to pay for the treatment.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Proton Therapy.”

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance: “Advantages and benefits of proton therapy.”

NIH: “Is Proton Therapy Safer than Traditional Radiation?”

MD Anderson Cancer Center: “Proton Therapy for Gynecologic Cancer.”

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