IU proton therapy center: 10 years of saving lives

By

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — It's hard to find a more passionate supporter of the IU Health Proton Therapy Center than Phil Thompson.

The lifelong Bloomington resident spent 31 years working for the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility — which houses the center — before retiring in 1999 as its personnel plant manager.

In 2005, Thompson became a patient at the proton therapy center, receiving 44 treatments over a nine-week period for prostate cancer.

"I still run into many local people who don't realize how fortunate they are to have this facility in their own backyard," he said. "It's truly a crown jewel for this community."

Thompson, who is cancer-free, will be one of the speakers at the therapy center's 10-year anniversary celebration from 10 a.m. to noon Monday in the Integrated Science and Accelerator Technology Hall at 2401 N. Milo B. Sampson Lane.

"I have a unique perspective of the center because I literally helped build the machine that produces the proton beam I was treated with," he said.

Another speaker will be Addison Limpus, the center's first pediatric patient, who now is 20 years old and living in Shelbyville.

Bloomington resident Angela Dilts also counts herself among the center's advocates.

When her son, 10-year-old Eli Dilts, began 33 treatments at the center in 2011, he had stage 4 medulloblastoma, a highly aggressive brain tumor that had robbed him of his ability to walk or talk. The brain tumor was baseball-sized, and the cancer had spread into his spine.

"He was in critical condition, but everyone at the center fought hard to give him the best treatment possible," Dilts said. "I believe he would not be alive today without the proton therapy center. And because they used cutting-edge technology, Eli had a lot less damage to healthy tissue and organs, and as a result, fewer side effects, than he would have had with traditional radiation."

Today, more than three years after his treatments, Eli is cancer-free. He generally uses a walker to get around, but six weeks ago, he began walking short distances without one. He gets regular physical and occupational therapy at the IU Health Children's Therapy Center in Bloomington.

"He completed a one-mile walk with his walker at Hoosiers Outrun Cancer, which was good for his self-esteem," Dilts said. "Now his goal is to run a 5K again, and we're working on getting him there."

Thompson, Limpus and Eli are among the 1,930 patients who've been treated at the proton therapy center since it opened for business in 2004. Forty-three percent of those patients were adults with tumors in the head, neck, brain or spine; 36 percent were men with prostate cancer; and 21 percent were children with various types of pediatric cancers.

Before being treated at the center, patients are fitted with "patient immobilization devices" designed to make sure they are placed in precisely the same position for each treatment.

The treatment table then is lifted into the proper position while a rotating gantry, attached to a snout, moves into a pre-calibrated position. The snout then sends a 2-millimeter-thick beam — composed of protons accelerated to two thirds the speed of light — through a custom-made brass aperture that mirrors the exact shape of the tumor or tumors.

"With conventional radiation, the beam goes through the tumor and comes out the other side," said John Kerstiens, the center's chief operating officer and chief financial officer. "With proton therapy, the beam stops inside the tumor, so it does not dose healthy tissue. I'm willing to debate the cost of proton therapy, but I won't debate the physics."

Thompson said the proton therapy center, one of 14 such centers in the U.S., is the only one not located in a major metropolitan city.

"Because of its relatively small size and Midwest location, Bloomington offers patients and families who come to the proton therapy center a special kind of hospitality," he said. "Folks who come here from out-of-state are always very outspoken about the friendliness of people in the Bloomington community."

For some proton therapy patients, the urge to return to Bloomington is particularly powerful. In the spring of 2010, just weeks after the parents of 8-year-old Katie Huhta learned her brain cancer had returned and was inoperable, they decided to grant her long-held dream — returning to Bloomington for a family vacation.

One year before, the Minnesota girl had undergone seven weeks of radiation therapy at the proton therapy center to eradicate remnants of a golf ball-sized tumor near her brain stem that had been surgically removed.

During that time, Katie — along with her father, Brent, and 12-year-old brother, Kyle — stayed in Jill's House, a homey, 22-room facility for patients and their families receiving treatment at the center.

"Even though things were not easy for her physically or mentally, she loved it here," said Brent, a software engineer. "Her fond memories of her time in Bloomington, and at Jill's House, blotted out the tougher aspects of the experience."

The Huhtas rented a 15-passenger van and drove themselves and their 12 children from Big Lake, Minn., to Bloomington. During their four days here, Brent; his wife, Jennifer; and their 12 children stayed in two large rooms at Homewood Suites. They went to all Katie's favorite haunts — WonderLab, Lower Cascades Park, the YMCA swimming pool and the public library.

At Jill's House, they spent much of their time playing Wii or Xbox in the play room. Brent and the older kids golfed at the Cascades course, and all the kids spent enough time in the hotel swimming pool to turn their fingers into prunes. To the Huhtas, it felt like home.

©2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.