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Proton Therapy Is Another Tool To Fight Cancer

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More and more people are surviving cancer in the United States. Health officials say earlier diagnosis and improved treatments are major factors. Scripps Health is building a new treatment center that will give cancer patients another tool to combat their disease.

— More and more people are surviving cancer in the United States. Health officials say earlier diagnosis and improved treatments are major factors.

Scripps Health is building a new treatment center that will give cancer patients another tool to combat their disease.

Darrel Wilson is fighting for his life.

The battle began two years ago, when Wilson had surgery to remove his cancerous prostate. He says it took a while to recover from that.

"And then the hormone treatment started, and that really wiped me out," says Wilson. "When I got the news that the PSA level was going back up after they took me off the hormone treatment, that was very devastating. So it's been a series of ups and downs, and hopes and dashed hopes."

The higher level in Wilson's blood indicates his cancer might be back. So now he's on an eight-week course of radiation therapy.

Wilson is trying to stay positive.

"You're fighting something you can't see," Wilson says. "You know, it hits you emotionally and you don't know where it's coming from, it's just all of sudden, boom, it's there. And you want to fight back, and the only way you can fight back, I think, is with your attitude."

Soon, cancer patients in San Diego will have another tool to help them fight back. It's called proton therapy.

One week ago, in Kearny Mesa, officials from Scripps Health broke ground on a new proton therapy treatment center.

Scripps CEO Chris Van Gorder says the $185-million center will be really impressive when it opens in three years.

"You're going to see a facility a little over 100,000 square feet," Van Gorder points out. "The machine itself is three stories tall. There's three movable gantries, this is literally where this several ton machine will rotate around the patient to be able to bring the protons minutely targeted to the cancer."

The machine is a 90-ton cyclotron. It will generate protons that will be fired into patient's cancerous cells.

Advocates say one of proton therapy's advantages is it spares surrounding tissues from needless exposure to radiation.

Dr. Prabhakar Tripuraneni heads up radiation oncology at Scripps Clinic. He says there are seven other proton therapy centers in the U.S. But he says some of them use older technology.

"Our machine that we are going to install here," says Tripuraneni, "will come up with the newer technology and the newer advances, that actually opens up the possibility that we could potentially improve the cure rates."

But the jury is still out on whether proton therapy is superior to conventional radiation treatments.

"Until we have head to head scientific comparisons," says Dr. Arno Mundt, "We're not going to be able to say one is better or worse than another."

Dr. Arno Mundt chairs the radiation oncology department at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center.

He says when proton therapy first came on board in the early 90's, it was clearly superior to traditional forms of radiation therapy.

"However in the last 20 years, conventional radiotherapy has improved, tremendously; intensity modulated, image guidant radiotherapy," says Mundt. "We now focus treatment better, limit the doses to normal tissues, thereby limiting the side effects. And so, that gap has decreased."

Mundt says proton therapy is preferred when treating children, because of its ability to minimize collateral damage.

Mundt says UCSD is planning to build a proton therapy center of its own.

For now, Darrel Wilson is hoping traditional radiation therapy will kill his cancer. In a month or so, he'll have another blood test.

"After that, we either celebrate like crazy, or we go onto round 16," Wilson says. "You know, it's a heavyweight fight. Maybe I'll win it."

Federal health officials say the cancer survival rate has risen from 50 percent in the 1970s to 68 percent today. Even so, some 55,000 Californians will die from cancer this year.

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