Proton beam therapy has been around for 20 years in Southern California. It's been shown to be effective in treating brain, eye, lung and prostate cancer. Now Loma Linda researchers believe it's also an easier way for many women to treat breast cancer with virtually no side effects.
"I now have been free of cancer for five years. I just had a five-year anniversary in April and I'm doing very well," said 53-year-old Vicki Ramirez of Redlands.
She was part of a clinical trial at Loma Linda University Medical Center to see if irradiating only the tumor site with proton beams in Stage 1 breast cancer patients would be effective. The results were astounding.
"The recurrence rates are low and the survival rates have been excellent. But most importantly, what we found is the side effect profile was very good," said lead investigator Dr. David Bush.
Proton therapy takes two weeks, while standard radiation treatment, which involves the whole breast, takes six weeks.
Dr. Bush said some side effects include rib fractures, secondary cancers occurring years after treatment, and the possibility of heart attacks later in life.
Ramirez's cardiologist feared standard radiation would affect her heart valve transplant.
"If I had a mastectomy, I wouldn't have to have radiation," she said.
But proton beams are far different from the radiation most people are familiar with.
Protons are particles that can be stopped within the boundaries of the tumor. The proton beam starts off as hydrogen gas and is pumped into an accelerator where it's sped up. Speed is energy and each patient requires a different amount.
"It's important that the beam travels just deep enough to treat the tumor but not any further to protect the healthy tissue that lie beyond it," said Dr. Bush.
Ramirez said she didn't experience any nausea, swelling or skin burns.
Researchers are now enrolling more breast cancer patients for a second phase of testing. The study is in the journal Clinical Breast Cancer.