BY: CAMERON YUEN
Hello! My name is Cameron Yuen, a current senior in high school. I'm going to be attending Tufts University, and I intend on studying Computer Science. I want to use technology to incite change, whether it's bridging the digital divide, aiding public health or bolstering sustainability efforts. Outside of academics, I'm a competitive diver and an avid Overwatch player!
Any person who has experienced cancer, be it themselves or a loved one, knows how condemning the restless hours of concern and chemotherapy feels. Our thoughts, their cancer, rip us apart from the inside, making us constantly ponder “what-if?” Fortunately, there may lie mental and physical refuge with radiation oncology — specifically the photon and proton treatments.
To generally understand how this radiation functions, it helps to parallel it to X-ray imaging. Simply put, “photons are a higher energy version of the same X-rays used for diagnostic imaging” (“Photons and Protons”). The particles are then oriented towards the cancer-afflicted area where “they break the DNA inside the cancer cell… [and] the cancer cell dies” (“Photons and Protons”). This differs from chemotherapy in a few ways, like the means and locus of treatment. Chemotherapy uses specialized drugs to battle cancer cells throughout the body, while radiation aims to kill cells in a localized area through a beam of energized particles. Though both methods vary in terms of their administration, their side effects are similar. Between hair loss, fatigue, and nausea, both chemotherapy, and radiation take a toll as their efforts to kill cancerous cells also damage perfectly healthy ones (“What’s the Difference Between Chemotherapy and Radiation?”).
That’s where proton therapy shines. Called “heavy-ion therapy,” proton radiation works similarly to its photon counterpart, but with one key difference: the lack of an “exit dose” (“Photons and Protons”). The photon treatment includes a stream of particles that “pass through the cancer and out the other side,” while proton treatment “stops at the tumor” (“Photons and Protons”). Especially in areas in close vicinity to vital organs, this feature is extremely beneficial. Both methods have proved to be equally effective in killing cancer, so having a way to minimize the collateral damage only adds to the laundry list of positives about radiation oncology. However, like anything related to cancer, there’s always a drawback. Proton therapy is a far more expensive method than photon, which poses a potentially complex decision as to whether the side effects of photon therapy are enough to justify the use of its sister method (“Photons and Protons”).
But as our medical community trudges along in the war against cancer, continuing to accumulate mini-victories, there should be no doubt that we’ll perfect these methods, paving a path for advanced radiation techniques in oncology and beyond.
“Photons and Protons.” Promise and Progress, 20 Dec. 2019, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/articles/photons-and-protons.
“What's the Difference Between Chemotherapy and Radiation?” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/cancer/cancer-chemotherapy-radiation-differences.