Proton Therapy & Technology | Cancer Treatment in D.C. | MedStar Health

What is proton therapy?

Proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation treatment that is highly targeted and can treat tumors anywhere in the body in both adults and children. It's similar to other forms of radiation, targeting cancerous cells without the need for surgical incisions.

Many proton therapy centers offer treatment with an older proton therapy called double scattered protons. However, the most recent refinement to this therapy is called pencil beam scanning (PBS), which allows the delivery of intensity-modulated proton therapy (IMPT). PBS treats a single layer of a tumor at a time, painting the tumor with radiation spot-by-spot and slice by slice. Many centers that offer PBS still use the older form of proton technology to treat patients.

At MedStar Health, we treat all patients with the HYPERSCANTM proton therapy system, the most advanced and precise form of PBS available. In addition, the HYPERSCAN system is the fastest form of PBS, reducing the duration of each treatment session and improving both clinical accuracy and patient comfort.

We were the first in the world to introduce proton beam therapy with HYPERSCAN technology, and we remain the only proton therapy site in Washington, D.C., greatly enhancing the care and convenience of patients throughout the region.

Advantages of proton beam therapy

Traditional radiation therapy uses a special kind of high-energy beam aimed at the cancer to damage the cells and stop them from multiplying. However, this high-energy beam impacts not only tumor cells but also damages other healthy cells in its path. On the other hand, proton therapy is better able to precisely target the tumor's exact location, leaving surrounding healthy cells unharmed. In the long run, this can reduce the chances of developing secondary cancers due to radiation.

Proton beam therapy offers a multitude of benefits, including:

  • Targets and destroys cancer cells with precise accuracy
  • Applies less radiation dose than other types of radiation therapy due to its ability to shape to the exact size and shape of the tumor
  • Causes less damage to surrounding healthy tissue by improved accuracy
  • Results in virtually no exit dose (radiation exposure that continues through the body beyond the tumor)
  • Lowers the risk of radiation-induced secondary cancers
  • Results in fewer side effects and better quality of life following treatment
  • Highly customizable treatment that can be tailored to each patient's unique needs

Watch: Learn how proton therapy compares to traditional radiation.

Benefits of proton therapy with HYPERSCAN for children

Proton therapy is generally accepted as part of the standard of care treatment for many pediatric cancers. In addition to providing the most advanced form of radiation therapy for adults, this type of therapy is beneficial for children, in particular, for several reasons.

  • Children are less likely to develop a secondary cancer when treated with proton therapy. Several studies suggest that this therapy effectively eliminates cancerous cells while keeping healthy surrounding cells unharmed. As a result, the chances of suffering from a secondary radiation-induced cancer later in life may be significantly reduced when using proton therapy.
  • Proton therapy lowers a child's exposure to radiation. Because this therapy with pencil beam scanning (PBS) can be more tightly controlled than conventional radiation therapy, it avoids unnecessary radiation exposure, especially to healthy tissues surrounding the treatment area. This results in less growth impairment.
  • Everyday activities are less impacted during proton therapy treatments than with other forms of radiation treatment. During traditional radiation treatment, a child's normal tissue is usually exposed to higher radiation levels, which can cause more side effects. This is especially concerning when treating a child who may have to stay home from school or other activities during treatment. Proton therapy increases the likelihood that a child can continue their everyday life with less disruption during the treatment process.

How HYPERSCAN technology works

The HYPERSCAN system uses a pencil beam proton scanner, which deposits protons in the tumor spot-by-spot, layer-by-layer. First, the planning system creates a 3-dimensional representation of the tumor and relays the information to the device. Then, the HYPERSCAN machine precisely targets the exact location of the tumor, delivering radiation one layer at a time. The accuracy of this state-of-the-art proton treatment system allows us to treat patients with less radiation exposure to normal tissues than other systems.

A patient undergoes treatment in the Proton Center at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment to shrink and eliminate tumors.

Image-guided and adaptive proton therapy

We offer image-guided proton therapy (IGPT) using high-resolution imaging systems to accurately position a patient for radiation delivery. And unlike other proton units, we provide adaptive proton therapy with a diagnostic-quality CT scanner in the treatment room that can modify treatment in response to changes in the patient's anatomy, such as when the tumor shrinks during the treatment course.

What to expect

At MedStar Health, our doctors are dedicated to providing a seamless experience tailored to meet each patient's individual needs.

The first step of proton therapy is determining whether it is the best treatment for your unique situation and health condition. During an initial consultation, a specialized radiation oncologist will decide whether or not you are a good candidate for proton therapy by reviewing your medical history and discussing your personal needs with you.

Proton therapy is performed in two stages:

  • Treatment Preparation (Simulation Session): Before actual treatments, our physicians will generate a radiation plan specific to you and your treatment needs, including positioning and identifying your treatment area. Preparing this plan generally involves diagnostic imaging (CT, MRI, and/or PET scanning), which will guide the simulation session of the proton therapy that follows. Your physician will work with the radiation physicist and dosimetrist to develop the best treatment plan to meet your needs, including dosage and beam configuration.
  • Treatment Sessions: Shortly after the preparation phase, your radiation treatment sessions will begin. Most patients visit their radiation oncologist at least once a week while on treatment. Most patients can continue their everyday routine during the treatment sessions and return to work and other regular activities following treatment. Because proton therapy may cause significantly fewer side effects than other radiation therapies, it is less disruptive to your daily routine.

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Frequently asked questions

  • What is proton therapy?

    Proton therapy with HYPERSCAN is a highly advanced form of radiation therapy (radiotherapy) that has the power to shrink and eliminate cancer by precisely focusing protons onto the target tumor. This type of therapy takes advantage of the physical properties of the proton particles, which can be controlled better than conventional radiation. This makes it more accurate and precise, destroying tumors without causing damage to the surrounding healthy cells. In addition, proton therapy can avoid the need for certain surgeries and provides patients with an alternative treatment option for cancers of all types and recurrent cancers.

  • What types of cancer can proton therapy treat?

    Proton radiation therapy can be used to treat a wide range of cancers and can treat tumors anywhere in the body, including:

  • What does proton therapy cost?

    Once your doctor determines that you are a good candidate for proton therapy, our team will contact your insurance provider to determine if they will cover your treatment. We understand that medical bills and questions about insurance coverage can be a significant source of concern and stress for patients and their families, so we prioritize keeping you well-informed before beginning your treatment.

  • Does insurance cover proton therapy?

    Medicare covers proton therapy. Proton therapy is a standard of care for pediatric patients, so insurance plans will cover most patients under 21 or 19, depending on the plan.

    If you are a candidate, we will contact your insurance to determine if it is a covered benefit for you. In addition, our associates help our patients obtain authorization and assist in the appeal process, if necessary.

    We anticipate that insurance plans will cover most patients who need proton therapy. We will keep you informed as we pursue the process.

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For referring physicians

Referring a patient to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital

MedStar Georgetown invites referring physicians and specialists to entrust their patients' care to our experienced radiation medicine team. We are dedicated to putting our patients first and treating each patient individually and holistically. In addition, our doctors are committed to continuity of care and keeping our referring physicians informed and involved throughout the treatment and follow-up process.

Referring a patient to MedStar Georgetown for proton therapy can offer the following benefits:

  • Access to the most precise proton therapy technology currently available
  • Home to an experienced, multi-disciplinary and compassionate team of providers
  • A track record or success with state-of-the-art treatments

To refer a patient for proton therapy, please contact us by phone or email using the below information.

Referring physician contact: Cheryl Savage, Administrator, Radiation Medicine Department of MedStar Georgetown

Phone: 202-444-4639

Email: savagech@gunet.georgetown.edu