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Proton therapy center in Seattle brings hope for better cancer outcomes

Pat Purcell's doctors also told him that treating his prostate cancer with proton therapy, his life expectancy would be unbelievably good. The new Seattle proton therapy facility is just the eleventh of its kind in the United States. (KIRO Radio Photo/Tim Haeck)

Until now, cancer patients in the Seattle area had to travel 1,000 miles for specialty radiation treatment that kills tumors with great precision, while sparing healthy tissue and organs. It’s called proton therapy and the first treatment center of its kind in the Northwest has just opened in Seattle.

In August 2011, Pat Purcell of Sammamish was playing golf when he got a phone call from his doctor with the results of a biopsy of his prostate. “And he said three words, he said: ‘Pat, it’s cancer.’ What do you say to that?”

Purcell, then 50, considered several treatment options, including the daVinci robotic surgery and various forms of radiation. A lot of older patients prefer the “watchful waiting” approach, since cancer of the prostate is slow growing.

“But in my case, this tumor was at a point where it was palpable, they could feel it, they said ‘you probably have to act on this,'” recalled Purcell. But his doctors also told him that with proton therapy, his life expectancy is unbelievably good.

Purcell was sold. But the closest proton therapy center back then was in southern California. That, said Purcell, was the only down side. There were no side effects and he even trained for and competed in a triathlon during his nine-week, 44-treatment regimen.

Proton therapy has been around since the 1950’s but new technology has allowed doctors to direct the tumor-killing beams with power and precision. The physics involve a behemoth of a contraption, a 220-ton machine called a cyclotron.

It’s a sophisticated device that looks something like a giant brewing vat. It extracts tumor-disrupting protons from hydrogen atoms and it can accelerate them to about two-thirds the speed of light. Its greatest advantage, explained medical director Dr. George Laramore is that it focuses radiation beams more precisely and with maximum energy at the site of a tumor.

“And particularly for large, irregularly shaped tumors that are close to critical structures, like say a spinal cord, it’s the best way to get a high dose of radiation in without causing damage to normal tissues,” said Laramore

That was a crucial consideration for Purcell, worried about side effects. Now, he’s back to normal.

“I’m just like I was before and I’m not having to deal with incontinence, I’m not having to deal with impotence, I’m not having to deal with rectal bleeding, all the potential side effects from other modalities,” said Purcell, who thinks it’s probably the best decision he ever made.

The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center is a $150 million collaboration with, ProCure, UW Medicine, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Children’s. Dr. Laramore thinks it’s children who might benefit most from proton therapy. “About 80 percent of kids nowadays are cured of their cancer so the job now is to try to do this in a way that minimizes the long term side effects on the children,” he said

Eighty-thousand people have received proton therapy and the new center on the campus of Northwest Hospital treated its first patient this month. It’s an expensive therapy, but it’s generally covered by insurance. The Seattle proton therapy facility is just the eleventh of its kind in the United States.

“Proton therapy is amazing and it’s going to impact health care in the Pacific Northwest like nothing else,” predicted Purcell.

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