by Max Marbut
“We are all too familiar with how common cancer is today. There are 90,000 new cases in Florida each year,” said Dr. Randal Henderson, in his opening remarks at Monday’s meeting of the Rotary Club of Jacksonville.
Henderson is a professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Radiation Oncology and has served as medical director for the University of Florida-Jacksonville Department of Radiation Oncology since 1998. He works at the UF Proton Beam Center and specializes in treating prostate, lung and gynecological cancers.
The proton beam treatment facility will celebrate its third year of operation this month. After starting with just a few patients in 2006, Henderson said 110 patients are now treated each day. Proton beam therapy offers several advantages when compared to traditional forms of radiation therapy, he added.
“When you direct a beam of radiation at a tumor, all of the tissue along the path of the beam is affected,” said Henderson. “That can lead to organ damage and complications long after treatment is completed.”
Conversely, proton beam therapy is a much more controlled form of radiation. Proton energy can pinpoint a tumor with much less or no damage to surrounding tissues.
“Traditional therapies can put radiation where you don’t want it and X-rays go all the way through the body,” said Henderson. “Protons are heavy charged particles so they affect the body in a different way.
“They don’t go all the way through the body so tissues behind the tumor get no exposure. That means less damage to healthy tissue.”
An excellent example, he added, is treatment of pediatric cancers involving the brain and spinal column. With traditional X-ray therapy, thyroid gland complications aren’t uncommon in patients 20 years after the cancer treatment.
Henderson said the UF Proton Beam Center has come a long way in a short period of time.
“When I came to the University of Florida in 1998, the proton beam center was just an idea. As of last month, we have seen 16,000 patients and administered more than 51,000 treatments.”
Jacksonville was chosen over Gainesville as the site of one of only six proton beam treatment centers in the country because, said Henderson: “We wanted the best access to make the facility available to patients. Jacksonville is also a major city in terms of health care and we received tremendous support from the city.”
Most patients who come to the center are treated for prostate cancer and most live outside a 60-mile radius of Jacksonville. Their proton beam treatment lasts from 6-8 weeks and take about 20 minutes per treatment and most patients “feel pretty good” when their sessions are complete.
“That allows them to take advantage of Jacksonville’s local culture and recreational opportunities and eat in the restaurants,” said Henderson. “It’s good for our patients and it’s good for the city.”
As for the future, there is much research to be done to improve treatments and outcomes for patients.
“There is a lot of room left to develop proton therapy,” he said. “It is a science that is still in its infancy.”
He predicted future proton beam therapy equipment will become smaller and less costly and compared it to when electronic calculators first appeared on the market.
“They were very expensive but now you can buy one for less than the cost of a slide rule – if you could find a slide rule,” he said.
When asked about the success rate for patients treated at the center, Henderson pointed out that after just three years there is not sufficient patient data to speak specifically about the UF facility, but other proton beam centers have been treating patients for years with very positive results.
“Low risk prostate cancer patients treated with proton beams are 97–98 percent cancer free five years after treatment. For intermediate risk patients it’s 87–88 percent cancer free after five years,” he said.