New Cancer-Fighting Proton Center Opens in Warrenville

Facility is the first in Illinois and only the ninth in the nation

By Dick Johnson
|  Friday, Oct 22, 2010  |  Updated 2:50 PM CDT
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Proton therapy is an alternative to traditional radiation therapy and works by killing cancer cells and preventing them from dividing and growing.

Proton therapy is an alternative to traditional radiation therapy and works by killing cancer cells and preventing them from dividing and growing.

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What some in the field of medicine call a major advance in treating cancer has finally arrived in the Chicago area, with the opening of the new CDH Proton Center, a Procure Center, on Tuesday.

Proton therapy is an alternative to traditional radiation therapy and works by killing cancer cells and preventing them from dividing and growing. It's said to be especially effective with brain, head, neck, central nervous system, lung, pediatric and prostate tumors.

The 60,000-square-foot, $140 million building -- with some walls 12 to 18-feet thick -- is the state's first proton therapy treatment center and houses the 220 ton cyclotron that accelerates protons to two-thirds the speed of light.

When the protons finally come out, they're steered into a cancer-destroying beam and directed into one of four patient rooms, where robotic tables perfectly position the patient and their tumor. In a series of 40 to 60 second blasts, the beam targets the cancer without affecting any other body parts or functions.

"This gives us the ultimate tool in fighting cancer because we've gotten so much better over the years in improving cure rates, but afterwards [sic] the quality of life of the patients is variable," said pediatric radiation oncologist Dr. John Chang.

The new center is one of only nine in the nation. Each one costs upwards of $150 million, an expense that is expected to come down as the technology and design become more mainstream.

Still, the president of the new center in Warrenville claims the treatments are covered by insurance.

"It is affordable for the common man," said Jim Williams. "Medicare covers it as do most of the major payers at this stage.

It's estimated that as many as 12,000 patients a year in the Chicago area could benefit from the treatment. But for now, the center in Warrenville is only large enough to treat about 10 to 12 percent of them each year.

Additionally, the therapy isn't yet ready for use on breast cancer, though researchers in Bloomington, Ind., are already trying to advance the technology.  The proton beam must be specifically targeted for the cancer and a breast must be perfectly stabilized.

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