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Proton Therapy Offers Hope for Patients with Locally Advanced Stage III Breast Cancer

Proton Therapy Offers Hope for Patients with Locally Advanced Stage III Breast Cancer

In 2015, more than 1,650,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Although many types of breast cancer are curable, traditional treatment methods can expose the heart, lungs, and other organs to radiation, resulting in an increased risk of long-term side effects. Proton beam therapy offers hope to women diagnosed with locally advanced stage III breast cancer, by targeting the tumor while reducing damage to healthy tissue. To provide evidence supporting this, experts from Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) Proton Therapy Center are currently participating in a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) trial to compare the effectiveness of proton beam radiation to conventional photon radiation in treating certain breast cancers.

While conventional breast radiotherapy (X-rays or photons) has helped save the lives of many women, the treatment can expose the heart, lungs, and other vital organs to damaging radiation. This exposure can potentially lead to an increased risk of side effects such as coronary artery disease, lung scarring, and secondary malignancies. Until recently, patients and the medical community accepted these side effects as a consequence of treating the cancer. However, with proton therapy now available, experts are beginning to reconsider the side effects associated with treatment.

An advanced form of radiation treatment, proton therapy allows doctors to focus radiation directly into the tumor, dramatically reducing the excess radiation to healthy tissues and organs, therefore reducing the potential for side effects. Unlike conventional radiation which delivers a dose to all tissue on its path to the tumor and out the body, proton therapy deposits the greatest amount of radiation right into the tumor and then stops. This allows patients to receive potentially higher doses with less risk of damage to nearby healthy tissue. This is especially important in left-sided breast cancer, as the cancer is close to critical organs such as the heart and the lungs. Patients with left-sided breast cancer are more likely than patients with right-sided breast cancer to develop cardiovascular diseases after receiving traditional radiation treatment.         

“Based on the outcomes of our patients, we have seen first-hand the benefits of proton therapy in sparing the surrounding healthy tissues and reducing side-effects,” said Ramesh Rengan, MD, PhD, the medical director of SCCA Proton Therapy and an associate professor of radiation oncology at University of Washington School of Medicine. “We are happy to be part of this important PCORI trial and hope it results in enabling others access to this advanced treatment.”

The PCORI Board of Governors recently approved more than $58.5 million to fund five clinical studies, including this study that focused on radiation therapy for breast cancer. PCORI allocated $11.8M of this funding towards a study that will address critical questions relating to breast cancer control and survival. This will be the first clinical trial designed to provide level one evidence comparing the effectiveness of proton beam therapy versus conventional photon radiation therapy for breast cancer.