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Although treating cancer with a lower risk of side effects is a priority for every patient, it's especially important when treating cancer in children. That's why, for many patients with pediatric cancer, proton therapy holds unique promise.
How Proton Therapy Effectively Treats Pediatric Cancer
Generally, cancer in children is treated with traditional radiation, chemotherapy or surgery – or a combination of the three. And while traditional radiation can go a long way in defeating pediatric cancer, it can also result in harmful side effects for growing children. These risks include developmental delays, hormone deficiencies, effects on bone and muscle tissue, and hearing loss or damage to salivary glands.
Because protons can be precisely controlled, pediatric proton therapy is ideal for tumors located near growing tissues in the spinal cord and brain, eyes, ears or mouth. For sarcomas and lymphomas, proton therapy may also deliver less radiation to the heart, lungs, and intestines. Healthy tissues surrounding the pediatric cancer are spared from excess radiation, meaning physicians can deliver more potent doses of radiation directly to the child’s tumor.
Types of pediatric cancer treated with proton therapy include:
The University of Florida is a world leader in pediatric proton therapy. Since the University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute opened, the care of children and adolescent patients has been among our highest priorities. We have developed a group of international leaders in pediatric radiotherapy, pediatric nursing, and pediatric psychosocial support. To date, children and adolescent patients have traveled from 34 states, 17 countries, and 5 continents seeking the specialized expertise of the UF pediatric proton therapy team.
Unparalleled Experience: Over the past few years, the team at UF Proton Therapy Institute has treated more pediatric patients than any other proton center in the United States. This means that doctors at the University of Florida have unparalleled experience treating even the rarest tumors of childhood. This background is critical as recent research suggests that children with brain tumors and sarcomas experience better survival in high volume centers (ref #1).
A Team of Experts: In addition to pediatric radiation oncologists, the team at UF Proton Therapy Institute is made up of a specialized pediatric anesthesiology team, a team of devoted pediatric radiation oncology nurses, a dedicated pediatric social worker, and a child life specialist each with years of experience working with children undergoing proton therapy. The professional technical staff who operate the proton gantries are skilled and comfortable treating young patients, from infancy through young adulthood. This familiarity is the result of literally thousands of treatment sessions involving young patients.
Specialist Support: All children and adolescents treated at UF Proton Therapy Institute receive multidisciplinary care, where the focus extends beyond just aspects of radiation. This support is critical for the most complex cases requiring chemotherapy, anesthesia, or specialized surgery. During their time in Jacksonville, children at the University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute are concurrently followed by the pediatric subspecialists at Nemours Children’s Clinic and Wolfson Children’s Hospital. Both Nemours and Wolfson have multiple pediatric specialties ranked among the nation's best for 2013-2014 by U.S. News & World Report.
Family-Centered Care: The University of Florida pediatric program is built on the recognition that successful pediatric care involves far more than high speed particles and advanced physics. We devote the same energy to the overall well-being of our young patients and their families. That is why we offer the most comprehensive and holistic support network in our field. This programming includes behind-the-scene pretreatment tours and age-appropriate videos and interactive iPad applications to help children feel more comfortable before their treatment, professional support through our full-time child life specialist, school advocacy, an adolescent and young adult program, and ongoing psychological assessment and supportive counseling provided by our pediatric social worker. Moreover, we know pediatric tumors and cancer impact the whole family. Ninety percent of our families come from outside Jacksonville and therefore we devote generous attention to ensure that everyone, including parents and siblings, feels supported. In addition to the well-known resources available for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House, we host a regular Family Fun Night with dinner and programming for our pediatric patients and their families. Other coordinated special events include group trips to local community events, performances, sporting events, and local attractions.
The Latest Research Protocols: The University of Florida is a national leader in pediatric cancer research and this extends to the Pediatric Proton Therapy Program. Children treated at the University of Florida have access to national studies through the Children’s Oncology Group (COG) and exclusive collaborative protocols with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition, the University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute offers its own innovative protocols designed to advance the field of pediatric radiation oncology through safer, more effective therapy. Approximately 85% of children treated in 2013 were enrolled on a prospective research protocol.
Training the Next Generation: The pediatric proton therapy program plays an important role in one of the fundamental missions of the University of Florida: education. Doctors from Moffitt Cancer Center, Mayo Clinic, and other medical schools rotate through the University of Florida pediatric proton therapy service to learn the latest techniques for treating pediatric tumors. In order to meet the impending demand for pediatric proton therapy specialists, the University of Florida developed the nation’s first dedicated pediatric proton therapy fellowship in 2011. Members of the University of Florida pediatric team delivered over a dozen national and international lectures to radiation oncologists and pediatric oncologists in 2012-13. This same spirit of education extends to the clinical setting, where doctors and nurses take their time to teach patients of all ages about their diagnosis and treatment options.
Ref #1: Knops et al, "The Volume Effect in Pediatric Oncology: A Systematic Review," 2013.