Proton Therapy

Proton Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer

Proton therapy is a form of radiation treatment that targets protons at tumors to kill cancer cells. It delivers higher, more effective doses of radiation than traditional X-ray radiation therapy with great precision, significantly limiting radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissue.

Head and neck cancers are frequently located near sensitive structures, such as the optic nerves, eyes, brain stem, and spinal cord. Because protons can be targeted to tumors more precisely than X-rays can be, proton therapy may reduce the risk of side effects that can occur when radiation is directed at the head or neck (including blindness, hearing deterioration, and dry mouth). With proton therapy doctors may even be able to increase the dose of radiation sent to tumor, which has the potential to improve outcomes. Also, patients may tolerate systemic therapies, like chemotherapy, better when they’re combined with proton therapy—because of its reduced side effects—than with X-ray radiation therapy.

If head or neck cancer relapses after treatment, it may be possible to retreat the area with protons because the surrounding normal tissues had such limited radiation exposure during the first treatment course.

Head and Neck Cancers Treated with Proton Therapy

Head and neck tumors that can be treated with proton therapy include:

  • Nasopharynx tumors
  • Nasal cavity tumors
  • Tumors of the paranasal sinuses
  • Tumors of the oropharynx, including the tonsils, base of the tongue, and soft palate
  • Tumors of the oral cavity, including the anterior tongue and floor of the mouth 
  • Hypopharynx tumors
  • Larynx tumors
  • Tumors of the cranial nerves
  • Esthesioneuroblastoma 
  • Orbital tumors, including optic nerve sheath meningioma, optic nerve glioma, and lacrimal gland/lacrimal sac tumors

Receiving Proton Therapy

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) patients receive proton therapy at the SCCA Proton Therapy Center, located on UW Medicine’s Northwest Hospital & Medical Center campus. A complete proton therapy session can range from 15 to 60 minutes; the time spent delivering protons to the tumor is only about one minute. Most patients receive therapy five days a week for four to eight weeks. If your doctors recommend proton therapy for you, they will talk with you about this option.

Learn more about proton therapy.