Proton Beam Therapy - Everything You Need to Know

Proton Beam Therapy - Everything You Need to Know

Proton beam therapy is a form of external radiotherapy used to treat cancers that are close to important structures in the body. Such cancers are difficult to treat with standard radiotherapy or surgery. The equipment used for proton beam therapy is not available in all hospitals and if your doctor believes that this is the best course of action for you, you may be referred to a specialist hospital.

How does proton beam therapy work?

Standard radiotherapy uses x-rays, whereas proton beam therapy uses high-energy proton beams, wherein carefully measured protons are delivered to the precise area in need of treatment. The latest technology prevents the risk of radiation interacting with the surrounding healthy tissue.

Some normal cells can be damaged by radiotherapy, causing side effects. Despite this, most side effects are temporary. In contrast, in proton beam therapy, the beam passes through the normal cells until it reaches the cancer and then slows down and stops. The protons then release their energy to damage the cancer cells.

When is proton beam therapy used?

Proton beam therapy is used to treat children, teenagers, and young adults since their normal cells are not yet fully developed. However, it can also be used to treat adults in specific cases such as those with cancers:

  • that can be difficult to treat due to where they are in the body
  • that are in a position where the side effects of standard radiotherapy would cause serious problems
  • where standard treatments present a high risk of side effects
  • that do not respond well to standard radiotherapy and would need a high dose to be effective
  • that have returned after being treated with standard radiotherapy.

It is mainly used on children, teenagers, and young adults to treat:

  • types of soft tissue sarcoma
  • types of primary bone cancer
  • cancers in the pelvic area
  • cancers in the head and neck

However, it is used in adults for cancers affecting the base of the skull or the spine.

Proton Beam Therapy - Everything You Need to Know

What does the treatment entail?

You will usually have 1 session of treatment a day from Monday to Friday, with the rest at weekends: this routine will typically continue for 8 weeks. Each appointment takes around 30 to 45 minutes despite the treatment itself only taking a few minutes. The majority of the appointment is taken up by positioning you correctly and doing checks.

It is imperative that you lie as still as possible during your treatment so young children may be given a general anesthetic to help them lie still. Ahead of your treatment, you will have a CT scan or x-rays to ensure that you are in the correct position.

During the treatment, the proton beam machines will move around you whilst you lie still. The treatment itself is painless. When the session has finished, the radiographers will tell you when it is okay to move – it is absolutely vital to wait for this instruction.

What are the possible side effects?

You may find yourself feeling tired for a few weeks after the treatment. Similarly, your skin may become red, dry, or itchy, and it may even blister or peel. Furthermore, you may lose hair in the area being treated.

Specifically for the treatment of eye tumors, you may experience blurred vision lasting a few hours, swelling of the eyelid, and irritation of the cornea.

For treatment of brain and spinal tumors, you may experience nausea, headaches, a loss of taste and appetite, and anxiety and depression.


If you do find yourself in a position where proton beam therapy is necessary, your doctor will talk you through your course of treatment, explaining the process and the aftereffects.