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Proton Therapy Helps Two Pediatric Patients 

CancerWise - September 2007

By Sara Farris

Sabeen KhanLike most teenagers, Sabeen Khan spent her 16th birthday celebrating with family and friends, but she couldn’t ignore the constant ache in her hip. The pain had persisted for weeks.

In January 2006, one week after her birthday, she was diagnosed with a bone cancer called osteosarcoma. She underwent chemotherapy and was told the next step would be surgery. However, the surgeons said they would have to amputate her entire left leg and hip because of the tumor's location.

“At that point, my family and I decided that we wouldn’t proceed with the surgery because it would be too debilitating,” says Sabeen, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn. “Then a friend of our family told us about a doctor in Houston who had a clinical trial we should check out.”

At that time, Sabeen had no idea she would become the first pediatric patient at
M. D. Anderson to receive proton therapy, a treatment that eliminated the cancer and saved her leg from amputation. Since then, 54 pediatric patients have been treated at the Proton Therapy Center at M. D. Anderson.

Proton therapy is a highly specialized form of radiation therapy that delivers targeted doses of radiation to tumors while avoiding healthy tissue.

In general, children, who are still growing and developing, are more sensitive than adults to the adverse effects of traditional radiation. Since proton therapy minimizes the amount of healthy tissues exposed to radiation, it is very suitable for treating children with tumors.

Therapy has fewer risks for 4-year-old

”For pediatric patients needing radiation, you want to protect their growth and development and give them the best chance of quality of life after cancer treatment,” says Sabeen’s medical oncologist Peter Anderson, M.D., a professor at the Children’s Cancer Hospital at M. D. Anderson. “Traditional radiation can damage tissue and organs surrounding tumors, while proton therapy targets only the tumor.”

Jason and Jennifer Lightfoot with daughter Sky SmithTraditional radiation might have increased the risk of cataracts and a loss of cognitive abilities for 4-year-old Sky Smith, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in June.

Traditional radiation also could have stopped her growth and caused major damage to her organs that would cause long-term side effects.

Radiation was recommended after surgeons near her home in Virginia were only able to extract 25% of the tumor. The mass located on the frontal lobe behind her left eye was wrapped around the cerebral artery, making it difficult to remove.

Sky’s parents turned to M. D. Anderson, where she began proton therapy. Since she completed therapy in late August, the only side effect she has experienced has been a small red area on her scalp.

Teenage life goes on after treatment

In Sabeen’s case, any side effects from treatment were significantly less than the pain she had been suffering prior to treatment. Sabeen stayed in Houston for two months in 2006 while receiving a combination of proton therapy and chemotherapy.

“It sounds trivial, but the hardest thing about being treated was losing my hair,” Sabeen says. “I’ve had a lot of support, though. Family flew in from Pakistan, friends and neighbors encouraged me, and I had a strong faith in God.”

After spending part of her summer in Houston and being partially home schooled, Sabeen was finally released to go home. Proton therapy destroyed the cancer cells within her tumor, but a solid, benign mass remains. Removing it is not an option at this time because of its location.

Sabeen spent the fall catching up in school and recovering from treatment. However, in December, she started having a shooting pain in her leg. Fears of recurrence filled her mind as she went back to her doctor. Her fears subsided when PET scans confirmed the tumor wasn’t active but may have put pressure on a nerve.

One year check-up shows no cancer

By February 2007, just over a year from her diagnosis, Sabeen was given the best belated birthday gift ever. She was told that there was no evidence of cancer and that she was in remission.

Today, Sabeen is still working to get her life back to normal. She spent the summer making up for missed classes and preparing to go back as a full-time student. She plans to attend college, possibly in Florida, when the time comes and may pursue a major in English.

For now, she is just trying to enjoy life as a 16-year-old, with maybe a few grown-up lessons under her belt.

“After having cancer and going through what I did, I’ve learned a lot,” Sabeen says. “I think the most important thing I have learned is that you can’t take anything for granted.”


  • Proton Therapy Center (M. D. Anderson)
  • Children’s Cancer Hospital at M. D. Anderson

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center