Frequently Asked Questions about proton therapy

Choosing a cancer treatment is never a simple decision. But at the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute, we want to help make your decision a confident one. If you have questions, we're here to answer them. Explore the information below, or contact us today to learn more

Q. What is proton therapy?

A. Proton therapy delivers a precise radiation treatment while destroying cancer cells and minimizing damage to healthy tissue. This reduces side effects and lessens the risk of developing complications from treatment in later life.
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Q: What makes proton therapy different from traditional radiation?

A: Proton therapy destroys cancer cells and minimizes damage to healthy cells by delivering a powerful punch of radiation right to the tumor site. Because proton beam radiation can be more precisely controlled, doctors can prescribe higher doses of radiation with less impact on the health of surrounding tissue. In contrast to the X-rays commonly used in conventional radiation, protons enter the body at a low energy level and release most of their energy upon impact with the tumor, so there is no "exit" dose of radiation to healthy tissue. This results in a low incidence of side effects and, especially in children, fewer long-term effects. The targeted dose of radiation is also a benefit when the tumor is located in sensitive areas like the eye, brain, head, neck, lung or prostate.
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Q. Does proton therapy have a higher cure rate than conventional radiation therapy?

A. Proton therapy is at least as effective as conventional radiation therapy, but with fewer side effects. In some cases, proton therapy is not only the best but also the only option.
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Q. Why should I choose UF Health Proton Therapy Institute?

A. The UF Health Proton Therapy Institute offers patients the advantages of proton therapy in a nonprofit academic health center. With more than 187,000 treatments across nearly 6,000 patients since 2006, the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute excels in staff experience, patient satisfaction and patient outcomes, driven by our dedicated team of highly skilled physicians and radiation oncology specialists. Experts from around the world in the field of proton radiation therapy reside at our institute to serve patients in an environment that's supportive and nurturing. In a recent study, 98% of patients surveyed said they would recommend the Institute to a friend or family member, and 99% reported excellent or good experiences during their daily treatments. Patient outcomes at the UF Health Proton Therapy center are also outstanding, showing favorable results in recent Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate and pediatric cancer post-treatment studies.
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Q. What makes UF Health Proton Therapy Institute different?

A. The UF Health Proton Therapy Institute is the only nonprofit proton facility affiliated with a major academic health center in the Southeast. The 98,000-square-foot radiation oncology facility houses both conventional radiation and proton therapy technology. As one of the top five proton therapy facilities in the world for number of patients treated, we are proud to add our recent State of Florida designation as a "Cancer Center of Excellence" to our credentials. From the beginning of admission and the treatment process, patients at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute get prompt and thorough answers and careful attention paid to all of their cancer treatment needs including:

  • answers about proton therapy side effects
  • thorough explanation of the treatment process
  • guidance on financial and insurance matters
  • support groups and quality of life resources for patients and families

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Q. Which cancers can be treated with proton therapy?

A. Proton therapy is typically used for tumors that have not spread to other parts of the body and is effective in treating many types of cancer. Proton therapy may be most valuable in the treatment of tumors in areas like:

  • the brain
  • breast
  • bone
  • gastrointestinal tract
  • prostate
  • pediatric cancer
  • more

Learn more about the types of cancer treated with proton therapy.

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Q. Is there an advantage in treating breast cancer with proton therapy?

A. When there is an indication to treat the regional lymph nodes, the heart and lung are at higher risk of radiation exposure compared to treatment of the breast or chest wall alone. Proton therapy results in significantly reduced exposure of the heart and lung to radiation while maintaining the high dose to the target regions. Thus, proton therapy can minimize the risk of side effects without compromising tumor control.

Learn more about proton therapy for Breast Cancer

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Q. How do proton therapy side effects compare with traditional radiation side effects?

A. In many cases, the side effects associated with proton therapy are fewer than those that come from traditional radiation. This is due to proton therapy's ability to effectively deliver radiation doses to the treatment site while doing considerably less damage to the healthy tissue surrounding the tumor. Your physician will review in detail with you any potential side effects prior to the start of your proton therapy treatments.

Learn more about proton therapy's benefits

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Q. How can I find out if I'm a candidate for proton therapy?

A. Prior to scheduling a patient's consultation visit, the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute will first work with the patient to collect a series of clinical reports and studies. Once we have this information, it typically takes about a week to schedule the consultation visit. During the consultation visit, the physician will make an assessment to determine if proton therapy is the best course of treatment. To request more information, contact us today or call toll-free 877-686-6009 and speak to our Patient Intake Services Department.
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Q. Is proton therapy experimental?

A. No, proton therapy technology is not experimental, investigational, or untested science. Proton therapy was FDA approved for use in the U.S. in 1988. Proton therapy has been around for almost 60 years; tens of thousands of patients have been treated, reimbursed by Medicare and many other private insurers. Reputable medical centers all over the world have embraced the technology and are building proton centers.
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Q. Why hasn't my doctor suggested proton therapy?

A. Proton therapy was only practiced at research facilities up until about 1990. Although it's been around much longer than the last 26 years, proton therapy facilities are still limited in number. Even with 22 operating proton centers in the U.S. today (and 14 under construction), fewer than 1 percent of all radiation treatments are proton therapy. Because of this, your doctor may not be completely familiar with the benefits of proton therapy. Ask your doctor if you may be a candidate, or contact us today to learn more.
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Q. Are there any ongoing studies related to proton therapy and its long-term outcomes?

A. Yes. Research on proton therapy continues to be conducted and reviewed by the medical and oncological community. In pursuit of the most accurate, effective practices and treatment, The UF Health Proton Therapy Institute has conducted more than two dozen clinical trials and numerous peer-reviewed studies, including a 5-year study on prostate cancer outcomes. Learn more about Clinical Trials at the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute.

Research Department Overview

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Q. How does the treatment process work?

A. After an initial consultation with a UF Health Proton Therapy Institute radiation oncologist, patients take part in a simulation. Simulation involves gathering information to help pinpoint the exact size, shape and location of your tumor or lesion and surrounding critical structures using advanced imaging methods such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), CT (computed tomography) scanning and/ or PET (positron emission tomography) imaging. Using images and data collected from the simulation, a customized mold and other devices will be created to position you during treatment, so proton therapy can be delivered precisely to the tumor each and every time.
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Q. How many proton therapy treatments does it take to treat prostate cancer?

A. Typically, treatment for prostate cancer is performed five days a week for eight weeks. Some patients may be eligible for a clinical trial that completes the treatment in five-and-a-half weeks.
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Q. How many proton therapy treatments does it take to treat other types of cancer?

A. Typically, treatment for other types of cancer with proton therapy last between four and eight weeks, for five days a week.
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Q. What happens during a treatment session?

A. Once the tumor's location is accurately determined, proton therapy sessions may take anywhere from four to eight weeks. The appointment usually lasts 15 to 45 minutes, but the actual time it takes to deliver the proton beam is only one to three minutes, on average. Most of the time is spent positioning the patient properly and adjusting the equipment in the treatment room. Treatment sessions are noninvasive, so patients can often continue with their daily activities. For more details, see the proton therapy process.
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Q. Can proton therapy be combined with other treatment options?

A. Yes. Patients with cancer often undergo more than one type of therapy. Proton therapy can be used in combination with conventional X-ray radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Your doctor will determine and discuss with you the details of your prognosis and the possible benefits of proton therapy as an addition to your treatment plan.
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Q. If I have proton therapy as the treatment for my prostate cancer, can I have surgery afterwards if needed later on?

A. Yes, it is possible to have surgery following treatment for prostate cancer with proton therapy. It is important though to find a skilled surgeon that has experience in removing the prostate following radiation. While there are some recurrences with proton therapy, the percentage of these cases is very low.
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Q. Can children with cancer receive proton therapy?

A. Yes. Proton therapy is especially effective in treating childhood cancer. Proton therapy's ability to accurately target tumors in areas like the brain, head, neck, spinal cord and thoracic region helps to spare vital organs and surrounding healthy tissue, therefore allowing children to better tolerate and respond to treatment. As a child's body grows and develops, damage to healthy tissue and organs from radiation at a young age can cause growth abnormalities, reductions in IQ, and the risk of tumor development as they grow. By reducing the radiation exposure to normal healthy tissue during the actual treatment process, proton therapy may reduce the risk of side effects and complications later in life. In addition to precisely targeting a child's tumor, the reduced risk of side effects during the actual treatment process make proton therapy an ideal choice for treating cancer in children.
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Q. Will my health insurance provide coverage for proton therapy to treat different kinds of cancer?

A. Generally, proton therapy is covered by Medicare or other insurance providers in the United States. To reduce the potential of financial uncertainties, this information will be reviewed with you prior to your consultation. We have a full-time staff of financial counselors who will discuss your coverage and answer any questions that you may have.
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Q. Do I need a doctor's referral to be a UF Health Proton Therapy Institute patient?

A. In the majority of cases, a physician referral is not necessary for treatment at our facility unless it is required by the patient's insurance provider. You can contact the Institute directly to find out more or schedule an appointment. Contact us today or call toll-free 877-686-6009 and speak to our Patient Intake Services Department.
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Q. Is there a wait list for an appointment or consultation?

A. No. The UF Health Proton Therapy Institute has appointments open and available for new patients. It typically takes one to two weeks for medical records to be gathered, insurance to be verified and a consultation date to be set.
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Q. Are there support groups for patients and their families at UF Health Proton Therapy Institute?

A. Yes. At the Institute, patients, family members and caregivers can feel connected to a tight-knit community that involves group activities like New Patient Orientation tours, weekly luncheons, group meetings and more. In addition, our Social Services team members are qualified, experienced professionals who assist the patient with a wide range of matters including the details of their stay, such as housing and transportation but will also meet with the patient if there are psychological, financial, or relationship issues.
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Q. I don't live in Jacksonville. Is there housing available for me and my caregiver while I am being treated?

A. The UF Health Proton Therapy Institute offers numerous options to help our patients enjoy a comfortable, convenient and pleasant stay here in Jacksonville. While the Institute does not directly arrange housing, we do have staff members available to assist you with making arrangements. A detailed list of apartments, houses, hotels, RV parks and marinas, where you will be assured the best rates, can be found on the Staying in Jacksonville section of our website.
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Q. What is SpaceOar and would that be used in treating my prostate cancer?

A. SpaceOar is mostly made of water with an absorbable hydrogel, safely used in the body between the prostate and rectum to reduce rectal injury in men receiving radiation therapy for their prostate cancer. Eligibility for treatment with this system is determined by our radiation oncologist on a case by case basis. For further information on SpaceOar Hydrogel, please see
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Q. What is Pencil Beam Scanning?

A. Pencil beam scanning (PBS) is a delivery technique of proton therapy, instead of using conventional beam-shaping equipment, such as brass, to shape the treatment, PBS utilizes magnets to steer the beam, creating a customized treatment delivery shape. Pencil beam scanning deposits the radiation dose, layer-by-layer, like a painter's brush strokes. It conforms to the specific shape of a tumor and can be adjusted for intensity to achieve the desired dose distribution. Pencil beam scanning is ideal for complex cancers, in which the tumor is located near critical structures that can benefit more from a layer-by-layer dose.
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Q. When is Pencil Beam Scanning used?

A. Pencil beam scanning (PBS) is used on a case-by-case basis. Your radiation oncologist will meet with you and review your records and imaging files to determine the best method of treatment.
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Q. What is Varian TrueBeam?

A. Varian TrueBeam is a conventional radiotherapy device that uses photons (X-rays) instead of protons to deliver radiation. It is equipped with Varian's RapidArc® radiotherapy technology, a system that delivers intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) with speed and precision and allows for treatment techniques such as stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) and stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS).
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Q. When is Varian TrueBeam used?

A. TrueBeam can be used to treat tumors that are in areas of the body that move, such as the lungs, head and neck, and breast. It can also be used to treat cancer that has spread, or metastasized, if there are 10 or fewer lesions. Your radiation oncologist will review your case and determine which type of radiation therapy will achieve the optimal result.
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Q. What is IGRT?

A. Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) is the use of imaging during radiation therapy to improve the precision and accuracy of treatment delivery. This technology is featured in all of our treatment rooms, both proton therapy and photon (X-ray) therapy.
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