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Proton therapy center offers alternative to radiation

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Donna and Lizzie Pinion celebrate treatment graduaction | ProCure

Proton therapy centers in the U.S.

Loma Linda Medical Center — Loma Linda, CA

Francis H. Burr Proton Center—Boston, MA

Indiana University Health Proton Therapy Center—Bloomington, IN

U Florida Proton Therapy Institute—Jacksonville, FL

M.D. Anderson Cancer Center—Houston, TX

ProCure Proton Therapy Center—Oklahoma City, OK

CDH Proton Center, A ProCure Center—Warrenville, IL

Roberts Proton Therapy Center—Philadelphia, PA

Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute—Hampton, VA

ProCure Proton Therapy Center—Somerset, NJ

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Eleven-year-old Lizzie Pinion was diagnosed with anaplastic brain cancer on April 11.

Lizzie’s mother, Donna Pinion, 42, of Sycamore, said her whole world changed when she found out her daughter had cancer.

“You take her into the hospital for headaches, and find out she’s got a tumor,” Pinion said. “The only thing I could concentrate on was doing what I needed to do for her, and doing it well.”

Lizzie turned out to be the 500th patient to graduate from treatment at The Central DuPage Hospital (CDH) Proton Therapy Center, which offers an alternative, safer form of radiation for cancer patients.

Partnering with ProCure Treatment Centers and Radiation Oncology Consultants Ltd., Warrenville’s CDH Proton Therapy Center is one of 10 in the United States. Privately funded, the center uses a $4.5 million Inclined Beam Line (IBL) to distribute treatment to most adult patients, and in cases of children a $15 million to $20 million full-gantry is used. The IBL provides 30 and 90 degree angles with complete flexibility in patient positioning while the full-gantry operates 360 degrees around the patient, and offers maximum access to a tumor.

Dr. William Hartsell, medical director of the center, has been a radiation oncologist for 25 years.

“It’s safer because we have the ability to charge the proton in a way to make it stop at a certain distance,” Hartsell said. “While typical radiation therapy is still useful for a lot of cancer treatments, proton therapy is beneficial to children, brain and spine tumors because a lot less of the tissue is treated. If a patient has a tumor four inches in then we can treat it at that exact spot.”

Proton therapy is largely accredited to Robert Wilson, the late-Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) director. He wrote of the therapy in a 1946 paper titled, “Radiological Use of Fast Protons.”

The process begins with a 220-ton cyclotron. The cyclotron ionizes protons which gives them a charge or energy to go a defined distance. The protons attack the DNA of cancerous cells and do little damage to the surrounding tissue.

“It’s similar to a magnet,” Hartsell said. “If you roll a magnet down a row of opposing magnets it won’t stop until it reaches its positive counterpart.”

In the case of proton therapy, the protons are the magnets and they’re traveling up to 400 million mph. It’s because of this that each room goes through extensive testing before opening, and 14-inch thick concrete walls are done in a single pour for additional precautionary measures.

Hartsell said the center receives just under 100,000 applicants throughout the world for treatment a year, and only about 30,000 have access to a proton therapy center.

Lizzie went through six weeks of treatment.

“It was kind of rocky at first, but once they got in the first three or four treatments she was fine,” Pinion said. “ProCure did a whole luncheon when she finished her last treatment. They gave her a plaque, and then a little boy gave her a coin following a presentation.”

The CDH Proton Therapy Center has experienced a slow opening, and is currently operating at three-fourths of its capacity. In an average year, the center will receive 400-1000 patients.

“We have patients from almost every continent at this location,” Hartsell said. “I would say 10 percent of our patients are radiation repeats, and 20 percent are children.”

Meagan Sunde, of Huntley, said the center has brought her hope. Meagan is what Hartsell referred to as a radiation repeat.

Cancer is no stranger to Meagan’s life. She was diagnosed at the age of 18 with breast cancer, and is currently taking treatment at the center for a reoccurrence of a lymph node.

“It is possible that the radiation [Meagan] received in the past could potentially be a reason for the reoccurrence,” Hartsell said.