Loma Linda using Lethal Radiation on Cancer Patients

Cutting-Edge Cancer Treatment Center Improves Health of Thousands

Loma Linda, California, United States .... [Wendi Rogers/ANN]
"Source: Adventist News Network"

When Bob Marckini got a phone call in August 2000 saying he had prostate cancer, he thought it was the lowest point in his life. He did what many do in that situation -- he did research, spoke with numerous doctors, and tried to decide the best way to deal with the problem.

He also spoke with former patients who had undergone a variety of treatments such as surgery, brachytherapy (seeds), conventional radiation and proton therapy. "Of all those with whom I spoke, it was the proton patients who were most enthusiastic -- bordering on ecstatic -- about their treatment. I interviewed 56 of them. And they confirmed what I heard from the first one. No pain, non-invasive, and minimal-to-no side effects."

Marckini's reflections come from a presentation at Hampton University in Virginia in August 2005 where he encouraged that university to approve a proposal to establish a proton therapy center.

Marckini chose to get proton therapy at the Loma Linda University Proton Treatment Center. Just over a year ago, the Center saw its 10,000th patient. Now the numbers are above 11,000. Why do they come here? "One of the major reasons people initially came here was to try and get away from the detrimental side effects that we see with other forms of radiation," says Jerry D. Slater, M.D., chair and professor of the Department of Radiation Medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center.

He explains that proton treatment is a form of radiation that differs from conventional radiation in which x-rays are used. "The biggest difference is we can control inside the patient where most of the radiation is given off. We can actually start where the protons give off most of the radiation and stop them inside the patient. With more conventional x-rays, you cannot control them when a beam comes in." In other words, proton therapy treats cancerous tumors without harming surrounding healthy tissue.

Proton therapy has become one of the standard treatments for carcinoma of the prostate, reports a recent Proton Treatment Center Newsletter, a publication from Loma Linda University. "Radiation oncologists at Loma Linda University Medical Center have played a major part in establishing that role. They did so by treating many patients and following them for many years; the resulting clinical research has shown that proton radiation treatment yields control rates equal to other radiation and surgical modalities, and does so at a much reduced cost in side effects and long-term problems related to treatment," the newsletter states.

Cancers of the head and neck are often treated at the Center, and improvements are being instituted that will allow those suffering from breast cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer to be treated with protons. But the largest percentage of those treated are for prostate cancer.

Between 1990, when the Proton Treatment Center began, and January 2005, nearly 30 percent of all patients treated with proton therapy did so at Loma Linda University Medical Center. The Center has become a model for worldwide training and research.

In response to a question on whether the Center has received any negative comments, Dr. Slater says, "There's always opposition to anything new and cutting edge as far as I'm concerned. From the get-go there was always the concern, 'would it work? ... Would it bankrupt the institution?'" In the medical field, he says, "physicians are natural skeptics. If we don't know about it then it can't be that good. The biggest challenge has been educating not only patients, but the medical community [which] is by far the biggest challenge we've had.

"The ultimate vindication for that is people are copying what we're doing. You don't copy failures."

"I have experienced no permanent side effects. The quality of my life hasn't changed one bit. I couldn't have asked for better results," says Marckini.

Marckini met many other proton treatment patients, and he and his new friends decided to keep in touch, "compare notes as we continued our healing journey," and maintain their connection to Loma Linda University by organizing a group called "The Brotherhood of the Balloon." He says, "The word of our group's formation leaked out, others asked to join, and we grew larger." They now have 2,300 members in all 50 states and 19 countries.

The group has also referred more than 1,200 patients to Loma Linda University and raised more than U.S. $2.5 million for proton therapy research.

On the 15th anniversary of the Proton Treatment Center in 2005, the Brotherhood of the Balloon presented a book of 100 testimonials to the Center's developer, Dr. James M. Slater, father of Dr. Jerry D. Slater. "Every six months we prostate cancer patients go through a little ritual," he told the doctor. "We have our blood drawn and have our PSA measured. And, every six months when I get my results, I say two things: 'Thank you Lord.' And, 'Thank you Dr. Slater.' And I know there are a few thousand other prostate cancer patients out there who are saying the same thing."

The Proton Treatment Center helps Loma Linda University, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005, fulfill its mission of service. "It's just a unique thing, letting people know more about Loma Linda, what its mission is, what it's trying to do," Dr. Slater says. "I think from an exposure point of view, it's been quite remarkable for it. I think once patients get here it also allows them to see what we do and how that really is what it's all about -- what this place is all about -- how we deal with people, how we're different from other institutions in what we do, not just in the technology, but also in just the human level."

Dr. Slater says he believes that within a couple of decades there could be 25 to 50 proton treatment centers in the United States alone. He reflects on the Center's past: "When we started it was just us in a hospital environment. Now you have three [such centers in the United States], and two more scheduled to open this year. There's probably a half dozen or more in the planning stage. And they're all using what we've done as the model."

He explains that his father, Dr. James M. Slater, M.D., had a dream when he came to Loma Linda University in 1970. "This has kind of been a pet project of his for over 30 years. He had training initially as a physicist and went into medicine after that." He realized, Dr. Slater explains, that protons could alleviate many of the side effects patients get with radiation. "Ultimately in 1986 he got the go-ahead to actually do it. ...I went to Boston and spent a year learning everything I could about proton therapy to come back here and take it on."

My father "deals primarily with the technology side and I do the clinical side. It works out very well," Dr. Slater explains.

Howard J. Tuggey, a retired colonel in the United States Army, says, "Based on my personal experience at Loma Linda's Proton Treatment Center and that of many others I have met, [I believe] it is by far the new gold standard without the unpleasant side effects often mentioned in articles on radiation or surgery." He adds that complete confidence in the treatment has taken "all the stress out of my life.

"I cannot express how much I appreciate my doctor and case manager at Loma Linda, as well as the caring staff of true professionals. In my book, they are the best in the business. I hope the other centers coming ... are as good."