HAMPTON, Va. -- Roughly 2 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year. If you or a loved one is facing cancer, you might want to consider the treatment known as proton therapy.
The treatment is not for everyone, but for some, it's an answer to prayer.
Jeff Powell and his wife, Vickie, believe they dodged not one, but two bullets.
First, Jeff beat prostate cancer. Second, because he chose proton therapy treatment, he avoided the miserable side effects that often accompany traditional methods.
"I had looked at surgery, and I talked to some friends at a local prostate meeting who had it, and they had a lot of trouble with incontinence and sexual malfunction," he recalled. "And at my age I just didn't want to live like that."
Proton vs. Traditional Radiation
Proton therapy patients have fewer side effects because it only kills the cancer. But traditional radiation therapy works like a bullet, damaging healthy tissue as it enters and exits the body.
Proton therapy, on the other hand, is like a firecracker placed inside the tumor. The explosion of radiation damages just the tumor, nothing else. There's no nausea, no burning and best of all, no organ damage.
"Everything that worked when I started my treatment works fine now," Jeff beamed.
There are only nine proton therapy centers in all of the United States right now, but another seven are on the way.
Proton Therapy Institute
One of the newest treatment centers is The Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute in Hampton, Virginia. The location was chosen, in part, because this area of the country leads the nation in prostate cancer deaths.
Craig Fieldings,45, chose proton therapy to treat his prostate cancer.
"I'm half-way through my treatment right now and it's been a pretty good experience," he said.
So far, he's come to the Proton Therapy Institute Monday through Friday for one month. He has one more month of treatment to go.
The cost of proton therapy is about three times the cost of traditional treatment, but most insurers, like Craig's, cover the treatment.
"It's a painless process, there's really nothing to it. I'm in and out in 15 minutes and I can go back to work," he said.
Effective with Other Cancers
Prostate cancer patients like Fieldings aren't the only ones who benefit from this breakthrough, according to HUPTI's scientific director, Cynthia Keppel.
"We treat a lot of prostate cancer, but we also treat a lot of brain, head and neck. We've treated breast, lung, esophageal. We're looking at pancreatic, gynecological," Keppel told CBN News.
"It's also important for pediatric patients because kids have a higher probability of getting a tumor from stray radiation associated with more conventional radiation therapy," she said.
How it Works
During treatment, the patient lies in a custom-fitted brace on a machine called a gantry. In an adjoining room, technicians activate the proton beam -- no needles, no knives.
The gantry room itself is fairly unremarkable. But on the other side of the wall stands the part of the gantry machine the patient never sees.
It's an astounding three stories tall, weighs 90 tons and costs $8 million.
An Answer to Prayer
Oncologist Allan Thornton of the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute has been using proton therapy since the early 1990s.
"This is a resource to the community and to the nation," Thornton told CBN News.
"It builds upon 50 years of this therapy, first commencing in Sweden in 1957 and Harvard in 1961," he explained.
"There are many generations of physicists and physicians working tirelessly to bring this technology to its current fruition," he said.
That work means an answer to prayer for cancer patients who qualify for proton therapy.
They can expect to keep more healthy tissue, while escaping certain side effects associated with conventional therapy.
*Originally aired in February 2012.