Proton therapy’s precision offers patient the treatment he needs without damaging his vision.

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Christopher Johnson’s new glasses weren’t working right. His eyes didn’t focus the way they used to. When he went back to the optometrist, they confirmed that his prescription was correct and reminded him that it takes time to get used to new progressive lenses. But even in the following weeks his eyes did not adjust.

In December of 2017 an ophthalmologist gave him a field vision test and called him on the phone later that afternoon. “Hey, Chris,” the doctor said. “I know what’s wrong. Yeah, you have a brain tumor.”

Johnson who is married and has two adult children was only expecting to hear that he needed a new prescription. He was devastated.

In the weeks that followed, Johnson had an MRI and met with a Portland-based neurosurgeon located close to his home in Happy Valley, Oregon. The doctor was frank about the side effects of brain surgery including the possibility that Johnson could die from the procedure. They scheduled the surgery for the following Monday.

“I’m kind of the OCD planner and organizer of the family,” Johnson says. “Over the weekend, I tried to think of everything I wanted them to know – bank account information, directives, passwords, that the water bill was due in three days. But how could I tell my loved ones everything I wanted them to know? I came to the idea that since my wife and I have been married for 25 years and our children are 26 and 21 that if I haven’t shared something with them by now, it’s too late. I just told them all that I loved them.”

The surgery was a success, and the doctor removed the tumor. However, he also found a smaller growth he couldn’t reach and they would have to monitor. Six months later, Johnson’s MRI showed the spot had grown.

“And the neurosurgeon said ‘you know Chris,’ ” Johnson says. “’Patients come to me with all kinds of talents. It seems that your talent is growing tumors.’”

The doctor recommended another surgery and that Johnson follow that procedure with six weeks of proton radiation therapy at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center.

At first Johnson objected. He didn’t want to spend that much time away from home. “But we’ve got radiation therapy right here in Portland,” he said to his doctor.

But Johnson’s neurosurgeon was adamant that proton therapy was the best modality to treat his particular tumor, and said he refers a lot of his patients to SCCA Proton Therapy Center. He said it was a good fit for Johnson, because the precision of the proton beam would be able to target the tumor cells with the least radiation to surrounding tissue, especially the brain.

Standard radiation therapy utilizes X-rays, which deposit the majority of the radiation dose immediately upon entering the body while traveling to the tumor. After depositing radiation dose in the tumor, the X-rays continue traveling through the body until exiting out the other side, delivering radiation to all the tissue encountered on the way.

Proton beam therapy leverages a unique property of protons to precisely target tumors. Protons slowly deposit their energy as they travel toward the tumor and then due to a unique physical characteristic called the Bragg Peak, deposit the majority of the radiation dose directly in the tumor and travel no further through the body.  Protons stop after depositing the radiation dose in the tumor; X-rays do not.

Johnson set up an appointment with Radiation Oncologist Dr. Lia Halasz at the SCCA Proton Therapy Center. Halasz prescribes different radiation treatments for different situations, and after his consultation, Johnson was convinced proton therapy was the best treatment for him.

Proton beam therapy was a success for Johnson. He finished in September of 2018 and his recent MRI showed no new tumor growth. “For Christopher’s type of tumor, we have a good track record in controlling it with radiation therapy. It is important for long-term neurocognitive outcomes that we minimize the amount of brain treated. Protons allow us to minimize the dose to the surrounding brain, as well as the optic nerves and chiasm that are vital to vision, and which were near Christopher’s tumor,” says Halasz.

Christopher doesn’t think he would have done anything differently with his treatment, but he does have one piece of advice for anyone trying to make a decision about a complex medical treatment.

“I recommend people rely on their support networks,” he says. “Have your spouse or kids read over things. And if you don’t have anybody, reach out to a church, synagogue, mosque, or even a place like SCCA that has resources for you. Don’t go it alone.”

SCCA Proton Therapy Center uses precisely targeted radiation to treat tumors while preserving surrounding healthy tissue and reducing the potential for side effects. Protons are beneficial in treating patients with a broad range of tumors, including brain, breast, lung and prostate.