Radiation therapy is a common treatment for many cancer patients. Proton therapy — a highly sophisticated form of radiation using high-energy particles known as protons to target and destroy cancer cells with pinpoint accuracy — is now an option for certain patients.

“Proton therapy is the most advanced method of treating patients with radiation that exists in the United States today,” says Scott Warwick, executive director of the National Association for Proton Therapy.

Many of the latest radiation therapies, including proton therapy, are very precise, targeting only the cancerous cells, not the healthy tissue nearby.

“Proton therapy almost acts like a guided missile traveling to the tumor, and once it gets there you can make it stop within the tumor, releasing its energy and delivering a large, powerful dose,” says Dr. Alonso N. Gutierrez, Ph.D., MBA and chief physicist at Miami Cancer Institute at Baptist Health South Florida, which has a world-class radiation oncology program — including three proton therapy treatment rooms and the most comprehensive fleet of advanced radiation delivery technologies available today.

Both standard X-ray and proton therapies are used to treat many different cancers including those of the breast, lung, gastrointestinal tract, prostate, brain, base-of-skull and spine. Proton therapy is also particularly effective for treating many pediatric cancers.

Navigating the Q & A

“More and more patients are coming in with more and more questions,” says Minesh Mehta, M.D., deputy director and chief of radiation oncology at Miami Cancer Institute. He says most patients process initial information about their diagnosis and treatment plan in a limited manner, in part because this, understandably, is the most stressful event in their life.

Dr. Mehta encourages patients and caregivers to be well informed and come to appointments ready to ask the right questions. For most general cancer diagnoses, patients should ask the following of their doctors:

1. Please explain my disease and treatment plan in a way I can understand

Every cancer diagnosis is different and treatment plans are tailored to the individual patient, so it’s critical to understand exactly what to expect.

2. What are my treatment choices at this point?

Patients should always know what options are available to them, especially after their initial diagnosis.

3. Is this a multidisciplinary clinic?

In multidisciplinary clinics — like those at Miami Cancer Institute — teams of clinical specialists familiar with your specific case work together to determine a treatment plan and present the best options to patients.

4. Do you specialize in my disease?

“A radiation oncologist, for example, may treat different kinds of cancers,” says Dr. Mehta, who explains that to optimize outcomes, it’s best to work with physicians who specialize in your particular disease type.

5. Is this the best equipment to treat my cancer?

What matters most is finding a center that offers the right technology to treat your exact disease. “Certain radiation technologies have been specifically developed to treat particular cancers and better minimize the side effects of treatment,” says Dr. Gutierrez.

6. Is my treatment plan based on internal guidelines or those of accredited medical associations?

Dr. Mehta says a consistent approach is best for patients so doctors don’t under or over treat cancers. “This ensures care teams do the right thing for each patient,” he says. “Repetition allows clinicians to get very good at what they’re doing.”

7. Do you have internal quality assurances?

This question is an important one, as it addresses the quality of a center’s equipment, staff and the doctor’s decision-making process.

8. Am I a candidate for a clinical trial?

Dr. Mehta explains clinical trials often offer patients the chance for a better outcome, especially if their disease isn’t responding well to standard treatment.

Patients should feel comfortable talking with their doctors and asking questions throughout the process.

“You are the best person to advocate for your care,” says Warwick. “Write down your questions before meeting with the physician to assure all of your questions are answered.”