Proton beam therapy has been in vogue for the past few years due to promises to provide more precise radiation therapy, theoretically leading to fewer side effects. A news release from the University of Maryland Medical Center/School of Medicine claims that the center is the only facility in the world to offer both proton beam therapy and thermal therapy, another experimental cancer treatment, in the same facility.
As we’ve discussed before, there are few definitive studies proving that proton beam therapy is more effective and safer than conventional cancer treatments. Regardless, hospitals around the country have invested massive amounts of money to be able to provide this treatment, which can lead to large bills for patients.
The jury is also still out on thermal therapy, also called hyperthermia. The American Cancer Society considers hyperthermia to be an experimental treatment, and notes that it is still being reviewed in clinical trials.
This news release says that these experimental treatments are highly beneficial, but provides little concrete information to back up these claims. Presenting experimental treatments as vetted therapies can be expensive for patients and blind them to possible side effects. The release also says that they are the only facility in the world that offers both treatments, but this is a vague and misleading statement. The center isn’t the only center in the U.S. that can do both therapies, much less the world. These claims may make patients feel like they have no other options if they want to pursue this treatment combination, meaning they likely won’t shop around for the best prices or medical providers.
For the cancers mentioned in this release — cancers of the bladder, rectum, cervix, ovaries, pancreas, and connective tissue (sarcomas) — there are different treatment options based upon the cancer itself (its size, location, pathologic appearance, genetic markers, and spread) as well as the overall health of the patient. A wide range of treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and newer treatments such as immunotherapy, are available. Because the release focuses on two newer therapies, proton beam radiation and thermal therapy, the reader may think that these are the only treatments for these conditions. Moreover, there is no information available to the reader to know which patients may benefit from such treatments. The news release is more an advertisement for a program than information that readers can use to judge how good the program may be and for whom.
The news release doesn’t mention the cost of either of the treatments, or whether or not insurance will cover these procedures. We’ve discussed before that proton beam therapy can cost between $30,000 and $120,000. But it is hard to find cost information on the more experimental hyperthermia treatment, and the University of Maryland website doesn’t list any information.
There are no numbers providing context on the claimed benefits, only an assertion that the combined treatments offer “a potential way to boost survival chances for certain cancer patients.” But how much is survival “boosted?” By weeks? Years? And which cancer patients are eligible? The news release broadly states that the hyperthermia equipment will be used to treat cancer in the bladder, rectum, cervix, ovaries, pancreas, and connective tissue, but does not get more specific.
There is no information provided about any specific study or data demonstrating the benefits of either proton beam therapy or hyperthermic therapy for patients with these cancers.
While the news release touts the potential benefits of both therapies, it says nothing about side effects or potential harms. According to the Mayo Clinic, possible side effects of proton therapy include fatigue, digestion problems and headaches. The National Cancer Institute lists possible side effects of hyperthermia, which include burns, blistering, vomiting, and and possible cardiac disorders.
The release does not provide sufficient information for a reader with one of these tumors to know whether such a treatment program would be appropriate for them or someone they know. It makes several vague statements that “research has shown” and “studies have found” benefits, but doesn’t name any of the research or studies themselves. The release also quotes a physician who says, “Early research suggests that adding thermal therapy to proton-beam therapy may be associated with an even greater benefit than when combined with standard radiation therapy,” but this is still very vague. Who did the research, and how early is it? How much of an improvement can patients expect to see compared to other treatments? None of these questions are answered.
While the release doesn’t engage in disease mongering, it includes almost no information about the cancers that would be targeted. That would have been useful context to include.
The news release identifies private donors and a foundation that contributed to their hyperthermia system, although they do not list other sources of funding for the proton therapy.
As mentioned above, a physician quoted in the news release states that the combined therapy might have an “even greater benefit” than when proton therapy is combined with standard radiation therapy, but that is the only comparison made. The news release does not mention any more traditional methods of cancer treatment, such as surgery, chemotherapy or standard radiation alone nor how they compare to the new combination.
The news release says that the Maryland Proton Treatment Center, “is the only proton treatment center in Maryland.” While this is technically true, they neglect to mention that there is another proton treatment center in the region, an hour’s drive away in Washington, D.C. Nor do they mention any of the other 28 proton centers currently open around the country, or the 10 more under development.
The news release mentions several times that the Maryland Proton Treatment Center is the only facility in the world to offer both treatments in the same location. However this is either so vague as to be misleading, or just plain untrue. Does “location” mean at the same department, or in the same building? A quick google search shows that even in the United States there are several other centers that offer both treatments, including the UCSF Department of Radiation Oncology and Texas Oncology.
The release employs unjustified language throughout. Some examples:
• It calls proton therapy “more effective” but that’s not supported by data in the release.
• It refers to proton therapy “as a potential way to boost survival chances for certain cancer patients” — Which is it? More effective (denoting evidence in hand) or “a potential way…” (denoting future potential)?
• When you read claims like “the only facility that…” let the buyer beware.
• It states “research has shown…studies have found” — What research? Which studies? None are named or linked.
• “The Maryland Proton Treatment Center has achieved another milestone by becoming the first center to offer both deep-thermal therapy and proton therapy… It’s this type of innovation that sets MPTC apart from other proton treatment centers.” How should milestone and innovation be defined? By offering something? Or by presenting evidence? We’d say the latter.