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Frequently Asked Questions

We know patients have many questions when making decisions about cancer care. The cancer specialists at MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center are here to offer answers, support, help and hope. Our experienced team offers patients a partner and a roadmap for the most advanced care available in a compassionate, caring environment.

The information below will answer the most commonly asked questions about proton therapy, how it works and what types of cancer it is most often used to treat. A member of our health care team can answer additional questions during your first visit or you may submit a question via e-mail.

What is proton therapy?

Proton therapy is a form of external beam therapy for which powerful equipment is used to generate beams that penetrate the body. Oncologists use proton therapy to precisely deliver high doses of radiation to a tumor to kill the cancerous tissues without damaging surrounding healthy tissues. 

How is proton radiation different from traditional photon radiation?

In traditional radiation therapy, X-ray beams are typically used to treat cancer. The X-ray beams go through the cancerous tissue (tumor) destroying both healthy and cancerous areas along the path of the beam. Proton beams enter the body and deposit most of their energy at the target – the site of the tumor. Radiation oncology physicians are able to focus the energy of the proton beam within a tumor, minimizing damage to nearby healthy tissues and vital organs.

Why should I choose MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center?

Choosing the right partner for cancer care really does make a difference. The fact is, people who choose MD Anderson over other hospitals and clinics often have better results. The MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center provides the most advanced form of radiation treatment available and offers patients:

  • Advanced radiation therapy with treatment for the most comprehensive range of cancers
  • Reduced side effects and minimal damage to healthy tissue
  • Access to MD Anderson Cancer Center’s world-renowned research, cancer specialists and multidisciplinary care
  • A caring, comfortable environment that is easy to access with free surface-level parking

Is proton therapy experimental?

No, proton therapy is neither experimental nor investigational. It has been used in the United States for more than 50 years and in a hospital setting since 1990. It is an established form of treatment that is widely accepted by physicians, government agencies and many insurers.

What types of cancer are treated with proton therapy?

Proton therapy benefits patients whose tumors are solid with defined borders, meaning that the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.

The MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center provides the most advanced radiation therapy available to treat cancers of the prostate, lung, liver, esophagus, brain, and lymphoma. Pediatric cancers such as sarcomas and cancers of the central nervous system such as brain tumors, as well as other rare tumors can also benefit from proton therapy. The team at MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center has a deep level of expertise in cancer and in the research and treatment of cancer with proton therapy. Because of this, we have been able to expand the areas treated with proton therapy to benefit even more patients who are fighting cancer.

How is proton therapy planned and delivered?

After an initial consultation with a radiation doctor and radiation oncology nurse, patients undergo a simulation. The simulation is a treatment planning session during which the simulation team marks the specific areas where you will be treated during your proton therapy treatments.

Proton therapy treatments usually begin five to 10 business days after the simulation procedure and continue daily, Monday through Friday, for up to eight weeks. The length of treatment varies depending on the type of cancer. Your health care team will be able to tell you exactly how many treatments you will need after your consultation.

What happens during treatment?

In the treatment room, the radiation therapist will position you and use the markings from your simulation procedure to deliver your prescribed proton therapy dose accurately. During your treatment, the radiation therapist will remain in the control room where he or she can see and talk to you at all times by closed circuit television and two-way intercom. Proton therapy treatment is painless, and most patients continue to work and exercise during and just after treatment.

How long does the radiation remain in my body?

Proton radiation, once delivered to the targeted tumor site, has a very short life. After you complete treatment, you can leave the treatment room without any risk or radiation exposure to others.

Is proton therapy ever combined with other forms of cancer treatment?

Yes. Many times lung cancer, pediatric cancers and lymphomas are treated with other types of therapy as well as proton therapy. Depending on the case and type of cancer, proton therapy may be used in combination with traditional radiation therapy, chemotherapy and surgery. If your type of cancer can best be treated with combination therapy, your doctor will discuss this in detail with you.

Can children receive proton therapy?

Yes. The ability to precisely target tumors makes proton therapy ideal for treating childhood cancer. It provides accurate treatment of tumors near or within sensitive organs while limiting radiation exposure to healthy tissues, which is vital in children whose bodies are still growing and developing. This may reduce side effects during treatment, often allowing children to better tolerate proton therapy. Tumors in children that can benefit most from proton therapy are tumors of the brain, head, neck, spinal cord, heart or lungs.

Do I need a doctor's referral for the Proton Therapy Center?

No. You can contact the center directly – a doctor’s referral is not required to schedule an appointment. For information: 

Are there support groups for people undergoing proton therapy?

Yes, MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center holds patient support groups on a regular basis in our facility. Your nurse or member of your treatment team can give you the most current schedule. Additionally, ProtonPals, an online support group, is available for people who are considering proton therapy, currently in treatment or who have had proton therapy treatment at MD Anderson.

Does insurance cover proton therapy?

Proton therapy is covered in the United States by Medicare and many insurance providers. MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center accepts several major insurance plans as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Our patient access specialists can work with your insurance carrier to define your benefits.

What if I don’t have insurance but want proton therapy?

The Proton Therapy Center staff is experienced in working with patients both domestically and internationally who are interested in making arrangements to pay for their care directly. To talk with a member of our team, please call 1-866-632-4782 or send us an e-mail.

Is there a long wait for a consultation or appointments?

No. We have immediate appointments available, so we can schedule you quickly with no lengthy wait times. And, our location is conveniently located just outside the Texas Medical Center in Houston.. We offer free surface-level parking.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center