What is Cancer?
According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is a disease where abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues of the body by traveling through the blood and lymph systems. There are more than 100 different types of cancer, each with different levels of fatality and prevention.
According to a review on radiation therapy, written by the International Journal of Medical Sciences (IJMS), cancer still remains the leading cause of death globally and an average 12.7 million cases are reported each year. Fortunately, the diagnosis of cancer is no longer as fatal as it once was. Technology and medical research have taken huge strides in the past three decades and have helped save numerous lives all over the world. Technological advancements in the radiology field have led to better prevention, screening, and treatment of cancer.
Depending on the type and how far the cancerous cells have spread, cancer patients can either be treated with radiation therapy, surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and hormonal therapy. Radiation therapy has the potential to stop the disease's cell division, and so it remains an important component of cancer treatment. Approximately 50% of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy during their course of illness. However, the patient is exposed to high doses of radiation that damage normal cells as well as cancer cells. This is what causes the pain that patients experience during treatment, such as nausea, vomiting, and infections. Although the treatment can more painful than the disease itself, extensive research has proven that the normal cells are able to recover faster and retain their normal function unlike cancer cells. That is why radiotherapy and chemotherapy are the most common forms of treatment.
Advances in Cancer Research and Treatment
Oncologists have discovered that using electron beams in radiation therapy are effective in treating cancerous tumors that are close to the skin's surface. The beams don't penetrate deep into the tissue and are concentrated at the tumor so they don't harm as many normal cells. Proton beams are a newer form of particle radiation that offer better dose distribution than electrons. Due to their unique absorption profile in human tissue, the beams are more precise in administering destructive energy to the tumor while sparing healthy tissue. For instance, these are commonly used on pediatric cancer patients and those with tumors near the skull or spinal cord. Dr. Wolfgang Schlegel is Head of the Department of Medical Physics in Radiation Oncology at the German Cancer Research Center, and believes proton therapy's precision targets tumors better than the radio-therapeutic X-rays used in conventional cancer treatments. “By varying the strength of the beam," he explains. "It is possible to control quite precisely where this explosion of energy takes place.” The proton beam can also be deflected by electromagnets to target the entire tumor in three dimensions.
The reason why this treatment hasn't been administered to other parts of the world is obvious. Hospitals in lower-income countries lack the money to afford a particle generator, while patients don't have the money to pay for the treatment. It's even limited in the US and UK because of the difficulty to generate the particles needed as well as the construction of a treatment facility and its equipment. However, the decreasing costs of cyclotrons (particle accelerators) are likely to result in the wider spread use of particle beam therapy in the future.