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Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute treats first patient
Ground was broken for cancer-treatment center in 2007.
By Samieh Shalash, email@example.com | 247-4537
10:06 PM EDT, September 5, 2010
— When Ronald Cosman was diagnosed with prostate cancer in October, his uro-surgeon handed him a list of treatment options. He chose one that included complete removal of his prostate.
Cosman canceled the surgery a week before his January appointment after a friend suggested he look into the "proton institute thing" being built in town.
On Wednesday, Cosman, 64, became the first patient at the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute. Its official grand opening is in October. In the meantime, Cosman is one of about 75 patients who were on a list to receive treatment or consultations as the facility gets up and running.
"I was just a week away from having an operation and having no prostate at all," Cosman said, adding that he was excited but a bit nervous before his first treatment.
Proton therapy is billed as a noninvasive procedure that directly targets tumors without affecting surrounding healthy tissue. Most patients experience few or no side effects.
"You don't feel a thing," Cosman said Friday, a few hours before his third treatment. "You think 'Is this all it is?'"
Typical prostate treatments are given once a day for 44 days and take about 20 minutes each, said Cynthia Keppel, the institute's scientific and technical director. Actual radiation time is a minute.
HU's institute is the eighth cancer-treatment center in the U.S. that uses proton therapy. The $225 million building on Magruder Boulevard was completed in late 2008 and has been installing equipment and hiring staff since then.
To treat Cosman, the proton beam is placed at his hip while he lays down in a mold shaped to his body. Being immobile is essential to the treatment, which uses sub-millimeter precision to deliver doses of radiation, Keppel said.
Cosman said he decided it was worth it to cancel his January surgery and wait until the center opened to receive treatment because his cancer was slow-growing and didn't have to be treated immediately. He was diagnosed with it in 50 percent of his prostate.
"It just blew my mind," Cosman said about proton therapy not being listed as a treatment option by his doctor last year. "This building has been out there for two and a half years, it's not like there was a sign in an empty field that says 'Coming Soon.'"
Keppel said the center is treating local patients with prostate cancer first, because it's a less-aggressive form of cancer that's easier to treat.
The center will gradually increase how many patients and types of cancers it takes on as the staff becomes more comfortable with the equipment, she said. There are about 30 employees so far, including seven who were hired from other proton institutes in the U.S.
Once fully operational, the institute will have about 130 staff members and treat more than 2,000 patients a year who have prostate, breast, lung, eye and pediatric cancers. It's treating a 1-year-old with a brain tumor in two months, Keppel said.
The heart of the cancer-treatment operation is a 200-ton machine called a cyclotron. It spins particles to two-thirds the speed of light to create a proton beam used to precisely target and kill cancer cells.
A full course of proton therapy averages about $30,000 more than traditional radiation therapy, Keppel said, but actual costs range widely based on the patient, procedure and the insurance company. Proton therapy is covered by Medicare and Medicaid as well as most insurance companies.
Cosman, a retired business manager, said his treatments are fully covered by his insurance but that he wouldn't have been able to use proton therapy if there wasn't a facility in Hampton.
"Since I'm on a fixed income there's no way I could afford it," he said. "You have to go down for two months, whether it's (to a facility) in Jacksonville or Houston or Loma Linda, California. I would have had to choose another option."
Hampton Roads leads the nation in prostate cancer deaths according to the Disease Control and Prevention. In 2004, the most recent year available, it reported 26 prostate cancer-related deaths per 100,000 people in the region.
Before deciding to go for proton therapy treatments, Cosman said he spoke to a lawyer in Norfolk who had been treated with it at a facility in Jacksonville, Florida. He also researched what folks had to say about the facility in Loma Linda, California, where the first U.S. proton facility opened in 1990.
His housemate, Tom Tinsley, has accompanied Cosman to the first few treatments. He said the center surpassed both their expectations in terms looking more like a hotel than a hospital and having warm, friendly staff. A glass wall in the main entrance overlooks a fountain and muted furniture is set up throughout.
Cosman has been through three back surgeries and is doing better now than he did after those procedures, Tinsley said.
"It doesn't feel as critical a situation because there are no side effects," he said. "He's just gotta come here, lie down on a bed for 20 minutes and go home. It's probably one of the easiest treatments he's been through for a medical condition."
By the numbers
Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute
• 98,000 square feet
• 5 treatment rooms
• 2,000 patients per year
• $65 million in equipment
• 44 days average prostate-cancer treatment time
• 75 patients on wait list
Get more about the HU Proton Therapy Institute at hamptonproton.org or call 251-6800. Read more and about Hampton University at dailypress.com/hu
Copyright © 2010, Newport News, Va., Daily Press
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