By Theresa Edwards Makrush
Beth Klein had worked for decades at GE Health Care and became a GE Officer, in the area of medical imaging devices, including nuclear medicine and positron emission tomography, or PET, where machines use radioactive tracers to detect disease. “I became passionate about oncology and wanted to get closer to making a difference in people’s lives, which eventually led me to IBA and proton therapy,” said Klein.
Today she is president of IBA Proton Therapy, Inc., based in Reston, Va., with responsibility for IBA’s North American operations, and has been with the company for nine years. “I am blessed to be in a hi-tech, hi-touch business where we are working together with our customers and their patients to grow the market so that we can help even more cancer patients have a better quality of life during and post treatment,” said Klein.
IBA has installed proton therapy systems in more than half of all operating facilities worldwide. More than 50,000 patients have been treated on IBA systems; that’s more than all competitive systems combined. The UF Health Proton Therapy Institute was the first clinical system installed in the United States by IBA, after the prototype at Massachusetts General Hospital. The close working relationship that IBA has with the Institute has propelled the field of proton therapy forward. IBA engineers are on-site 24 hours, every day of the week, to ensure that the system is available and operating at maximum performance for patient treatment.
Last year, when Klein’s symptoms of hearing loss and acute tinnitus were linked to an acoustic neuroma, a rare benign tumor of the nerve sheath that lies along the acoustic nerve, she knew proton therapy could be the best possible treatment. In consultation with her doctors, she ruled out surgery, conventional radiation, or doing nothing because of the potential for unpleasant or serious side effects, both short and long term. Klein also wanted to make sure she could fully enjoy her future retirement years and not worry about the risk of secondary cancers down the road.
She turned to the physicians she knew and trusted at UF Health Proton Therapy Institute. “I chose UFHPTI because it offers an exceptional combination of clinical expertise and outstanding patient care,” she said. “After having gone through treatment, I am convinced that patient care is an important differentiator in outcomes. It is difficult to measure, but I believe that peace of mind and a caring, respectful, supportive environment plays a key role in healing.”
The following is excerpted from an email interview in which Klein describes more about her unique perspective as a proton therapy “insider” and now as a proton therapy patient.
Q&A with Beth Klein, president, IBA Proton Therapy North America
Q: What has your experience of proton therapy been like?
A: I have loved my time here. The entire team has been nothing short of extraordinary. Everyone on the UFHPTI team cares about you as the patient, from the parking lot attendant and receptionists to the executive team operating the center. The physician, therapist and nursing teams are ROCK STARS! They are smart, caring and fun to be with. It sounds hard to believe but I actually looked forward to my daily treatment because of them! I watched them with other patients, especially the children being treated, and was amazed at how skilled they are at what they do. As an aside, the Jacksonville area has been a pleasant surprise. You can't beat the weather and there is a lot of diversity in things to do.
Q: How is treatment impacting your everyday activities?
A: One of my main reasons for choosing proton therapy is that the side effects during treatment are minimal compared to other treatments. I continued to work full time while being treated. I also was able to exercise every day and played tennis three times a week.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer or to someone who is considering having proton therapy?
A: As a patient, it is important to do extensive research on your options before you decide what course is right for you. Don’t assume that your physician is aware of all of the options -- many times they refer you to what they know or have access to versus what they should know or perhaps don’t have access to. Proton therapy is not recommended for every cancer but studies indicate that 20-30% of patients who need radiation therapy could benefit from proton therapy. It’s important to ask the question, and if you are not comfortable with the answer, I would call the intake center at UFHPTI and ask them. They will connect you with a physician who has the experience and access to both conventional radiation therapy and proton therapy — so they are not biased. They will help you make an objective decision weighing the benefits and downsides to different approaches.
Q: What do you wish you had known before your treatment?
A: I wish that I would have known how easy it was going to be to go through treatment — it would have lowered my anxiety in the weeks before treatment. Even though I knew about the technology, I didn't have an appreciation for patient anxiety until I was a patient. Fortunately, the UFHPTI team was there to ease me through it. My anxiety was gone after the first treatment.
Q: Are there things you have learned as a patient that you’ll use in your work? Any suggestions for improvement you will give to others at your company?
A: Absolutely. As someone who works for IBA, the company that develops this technology, I wanted to use my treatment as an opportunity to learn how proton therapy centers operate from the inside out. As the world leader in proton therapy, we do a lot of things right, starting first and foremost with ensuring that the system is up and running most of the time so that every patient can be treated with minimal disruption to the schedule. I want to recognize the outstanding efforts of IBA’s service operations team at Jacksonville for all that they do behind the scenes to keep our system running reliably. They work 24X7 to ensure that our technology is optimized and available for patient treatment.
From a technology standpoint, IBA’s system is the most precise in the industry so I took comfort in knowing that our proton therapy system was treating the area that needed to be treated and not healthy tissue. That said, there are ways that we can make the system more user friendly for the therapists — making their jobs easier and improving operational efficiencies. From a patient perspective, I would like our development team to look for ways to reduce the noises a patient hears during treatment and perhaps find ways to make the table more comfortable. Fabric softener in the sheets does not cut it!
Q: What is on the horizon for IBA and proton therapy? What do you see for the future of proton therapy?
A: Our mission at IBA is to make proton therapy accessible to every cancer patient who can benefit from it. As I mentioned earlier, approximately 20-30% of all cancer patients who require radiation treatment could benefit from proton therapy. Today that actual number treated with proton therapy is less than 1%, so we have a long way to go to increase the awareness of the medical and patient community about the significant benefit of this powerful technology over other treatment alternatives. To move the needle on that measure, we are partnered with expert clinicians, such as the team here at UFHPTI, to research, expand and publish the studies which demonstrate those benefits. We are also looking for ways to engage the patient community, who are wonderful advocates for our technology, in getting the message out. I hope that every patient will become a proton therapy ambassador going forward and spread the word about this treatment option within their community.
As for the future, I am happy to share that the team at UFHPTI is currently partnered with IBA on upgrading their technology to include the latest state-of-the-art imaging and treatment modes. They will continue to be one of the most advanced proton therapy centers in the world.