Proton therapy: Radiation without the side effects?

For years, 60-year-old Frank Mackinson had been experiencing strange symptoms that would come and go. Two years ago, as he was driving down a local road in his hometown of Bound Brook, New Jersey, he was forced to pull over after noticing he had double vision in his right eye.

“It just came and it went after 30 seconds,” Mackinson said. “But it made me pull over for a minute, like, ‘Jeez, what's going on here?’"

Mackinson was losing vision in his right eye and hearing in his left ear and became determined to figure out what was wrong. He was misdiagnosed several times with vertigo and sinus infections.

“I actually had for the last year strange neck pains and a little imbalance,” Mackinson said. “I had been to doctors five or six times throughout this past year.”

Finally, Mackinson’s neurologist sent him for an MRI that revealed the cause of his symptoms – a large tumor growing from his sinuses.

“The word ‘cancer’ just tightened me right up,” he said. “My wife Irene is a breast cancer survivor for 15 years, so being around her experience is a little optimism that it's not the end.”

— Frank Mackinson

“It was actually growing into the brain,” said Dr. Brian Chon, a radiation oncologist and medical director of ProCure in Somerset, New Jersey, who treated Mackinson. “So he actually presented with double vision, loss of hearing, difficulty swallowing, loss of taste – all because of the nerves that were being compressed by the tumor.”

Mackinson was diagnosed with solitary plasmacytoma, which is a type of cancer that grows from the bones of the face and is usually treated with radiation.

“The word ‘cancer’ just tightened me right up,” he said. “My wife Irene is a breast cancer survivor for 15 years, so being around her experience is a little optimism that it's not the end.”

Because of the delicate nature of the location of Mackinson’s tumor, his oncologist recommended he look into proton therapy as a treatment option. And as luck would have it, ProCure, one of only 10 proton therapy centers in the country was about to open just five miles from Mackinson’s home.

“Protons are like a firecracker, you can actually gently put into the tumor,” said Chon. “It detonates in the tumor and it comes to a complete stop; so there's no excess dose and very little entrance dose.”

According to Chon, by using proton therapy as an alternative to traditional radiation, or X-rays, doctors are able to spare on an average, 60 to 80 percent of the dose to the healthiest surrounding tissue.

“Had we used conventional X-rays we undoubtedly would have treated his eyes, causing cataracts in his eyes, radiated normal brain tissue – which could cause significant cognitive issues down the line,” Chon said. “And there could have been a catastrophic damage to the optic nerves which actually help us to see.”

Chon explained that the ideal candidates for proton therapy are children who would be sensitive to low doses of radiation, as well as patients with tumors in delicate places like the brain.

“We want to spare as much of the normal brain tissue as possible,” Chon said. “Head and neck cancers, again around very elegant parts of the face and the brain stem, prostate cancer and lung cancer are potential candidates for proton therapy.”

Mackinson received 15-minute treatments Monday through Friday for five weeks. And it didn’t take long for him to see improvements in his symptoms.

“Probably two weeks into treatment I was much better,” he said. “So instead of doctors just saying, ‘Well we looked at this scan or this X-ray or this MRI. and great your tumor is going away,’ I was actually able to physically enjoy it going away.”

Mackinson completed treatment in May and is looking forward to joining his wife as a survivor. And, according to Chon, he’s on his way.

“We think that Frank's going to be cured,” said Chon.  “We'll keep a close eye on his progress – checking his MRIs, doing physical exams – and hopefully he'll go on and won't need us in the very near future.”