What is proton therapy?

Proton therapy is a type of radiation therapy used to kill cancer cells in children with certain kinds of tumors. Standard radiation therapy uses X-ray beams. Proton therapy uses beams of protons. Special machines aim the beams at the tumor from many angles.

The technology for radiation therapy has changed a great deal in recent years. Now doctors are able to target tumors better and to spare healthy areas or limit damage to them. This means fewer side effects for children in the short term and the long term.

Proton beams are even more precise than X-ray beams. Once they reach their target, proton beams stop; the radiation does not keep going as it does with X-rays.

With protons, the tumor gets the intended high dose of radiation, while the healthy tissue away from the tumor receives even less than with targeted X-ray beams.

What conditions does it treat?

In children, proton therapy is used to treat many conditions, including:

  • Some brain tumors, including ependymoma, medulloblastoma, glioma, craniopharyngioma, primitive neuroectodermal tumor (PNET) and atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT)
  • Many sarcomas, including Ewing sarcoma and rhabdomyosarcoma
  • Spinal or spinal cord tumors  

What’s special about proton therapy at Seattle Children’s?

Proton therapy is part of our commitment to bring the best and newest treatments to children with cancer. Seattle Children's offers proton therapy at SCCA Proton Therapy, A ProCure Center – the first proton therapy in the Northwest. Whether your child receives all their cancer care at Seattle Children's or comes here just for proton therapy, you can expect a full range of services and support to meet your needs.

There are several proton therapy centers across the country. But there aren't many with a world-class children's hospital close by, like Seattle Children's. At Seattle Children's, our staff can take care of the medical, surgical and other needs of children and families who get proton therapy here. We're pleased to be able to offer this important option to children from the Northwest, across the country and around the world.

About the SCCA Proton Therapy Center

SCCA Proton Therapy, A ProCure Center, is in north Seattle on the campus of Northwest Hospital & Medical Center. It has four treatment rooms, as well as a library of resources and a playroom for children.

The center serves about 1,400 adults and children a year. Along with providing proton therapy, staff at the center can help with issues such as:

  • Finding housing, if your family is coming from outside the area
  • Connecting with other patients and getting support
  • Dealing with insurance and costs of treatment
  • Scheduling and managing other aspects of your child's care

Your child's team

Your child's radiation oncologist will work closely with the rest of your child's team from Seattle Children's or elsewhere, and the care team at SCCA Proton Therapy. We will continue to work closely with your referring doctor through all phases of care. The team at the center includes nurses and radiation therapists specially trained and experienced in radiation therapy for children.

Who needs proton therapy?

Children with tumors in certain parts of their body may benefit from having proton therapy instead of standard or traditional X-ray radiation therapy. Protons may be better for tumors in places where side effects of treatment tend to be serious or lasting.

Side effects of radiation matter even more in children than in adults. There are two main reasons.

  • Children's bodies are still developing. Radiation that damages healthy tissue can affect a child's development. Among special concerns are tumors in the brain or bone. Radiation can impair brain function or delay bone growth.
  • Young cancer survivors can have effects from radiation later in life. Fortunately, many children who come to us with cancer will beat their disease. But past radiation exposure puts them at risk for harmful effects from radiation therapy years later.