8:14 PM EDT, June 17, 2012
Killing tumors while sparing healthy tissue. It's the goal of doctors treating cancer patients around the world. Closer to home, a new weapon to fight the disease. It zaps away cancer cells much like traditional radiation, but this treatment's promise lies in what it doesn't touch.
Lying on the treatment table … his protective Spiderman mask firmly in place … 8-year-old Ben Lam is ready for his super therapy.
Dr. John Han-Chih Chang, Radiation Oncologist, CDH Proton Center: "So the beam comes in from the back of the head, and stops right at the edge of where all the critical structures are in front of it."
Unlike x-ray beam radiation, this proton beam stops when it hits its target -- the tumor site, eliminating damaging exposure to structures that lie beyond the treatment area.
Dr. Stewart Goldman, Neuro-oncologist, Children's Memorial Hospital: "We can limit the exit dose. And so we can really control less radiation to normal tissues. And this is a great advantage for some tumors."
The technology has been used for more than 20 years, but not readily available to patients because of cost – there are 9 facilities in the U.S. costing upwards of 150 million dollars each to build.
Dr. Goldman: "So for an important group of patients we care for, especially in young children, this could be a great benefit."
This is Ben's 26th treatment. He has four more to go. It all started last spring when he began having headaches and double vision. In June, an MRI revealed an aggressive tumor – Ben's doctors knew they'd have to be aggressive, too, but cautious at the same time.
Dr. Goldman: "And so we have to think not just how we do the job today, but also what that child lives with in adulthood and beyond."
First, Ben underwent surgery to remove the mass. Then chemotherapy and daily trips here.
Jason Lam, Ben's Father: "We talked to Dr. Goldman about a couple of different options as far as radiation goes. With Ben's type of tumor, we thought that this would be the best course of action for us."
As for Ben, with his proton treatments winding down, he plans to get back to the business of being in third grade.
Jason Lam: "He's done great. He's been very resilient. Most days he just does normal activities. And he's actually going to start soccer, he actually had his first soccer practice last week."
Proton therapy comes with a higher price tag – it can cost up to twice as much as x-ray radiation. But some studies show it may save healthcare dollars down the road. That's why Ben's doctors are tracking their young patients – they'd like more long-term data to back up what they believe are the benefits of the technology.
The treatment is covered by most private insurance companies and Medicare and Medicaid.
To learn more, check out www.childrensmemorial.org/depts/neurocenter/braintumor/proton-therapy.aspx
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