When doctors first diagnosed Mark Claridge with a malignant brain tumor, they told him he had 18 to 24 months to live, with chemotherapy.
That was in 1995. Today, the 52-year-old Claridge is happy and healthy as ever, thanks to another type of cancer treatment called "proton radiation."
After his diagnosis, Claridge left Prescott and traveled to Phoenix for surgery and chemotherapy. However, he didn't want to give up hope of survival. Through his own research, Claridge stumbled upon the proton radiation treatment and one of its top-notch treatment centers Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.
"It's such an accurate way to treat cancer and it's so complete," he said about the procedure.
He said the Phoenix doctors thought he should stay in Arizona and continue with chemotherapy. Instead, Claridge packed his things and moved to Loma Linda, Calif., for three months. During that time, he received 37 days of proton radiation.
"That's what cured the brain cancer," he said.
Dr. David Bush is the vice-chairman of the Department of Radiation Medicine at Loma Linda. He said Loma Linda tends to cure 85 percent to 90 percent of its patients suffering from early-stage prostate cancer using proton radiation.
Conventional radiation uses R-ray beams, Bush explained. The R-rays radiate through healthy tissue as well as mutated tissue. Because of this, he said doctors sometimes have to cut radiation treatment short to keep from damaging surrounding tissue.
"(Conventional radiation) is not specific. It does not target the specific areas as we would like," Bush said.
With proton radiation, Bush said protons enter the body, slow down and then stop unlike R-ray beams that continue straight through the tissue. He said doctors have the ability to control where the protons stop within the body, therefore targeting extremely specific areas.
"I believe it's the most accurate and precise way to deliver radiation to the tumor, while reducing exposure to surrounding healthy tissue," he said.
The whole key to radiation is delivering a high enough dose to the tumor to eradicate it, he continued. Because the proton beam only radiates through unhealthy tissue, doctors can give patients higher doses at once.
"Now we have a tool that overcomes the limitations of regular radiation," he continued. "We can deposit a dose of radiation within a millimeter or two of the intended target."
Claridge still gets excited just talking about this "pinpoint accurate" treatment.
"I just want people to know this treatment is available," he said.
Even though proton radiation treatment centers have such high success rates, the cost of building them is very pricey. For this reason, Dhirendra Patel, a radiation doctor at the Northern Arizona Tumor Institute, said Prescott will not be seeing this type of treatment anytime soon.
Patel is the only radiation doctor in the tri-city area. He said building a proton radiation center could cost $100 million. Prescott does not have this type of money. Researchers are coming up with new ideas to minimize the costs of building these centers, but he said that relief won't be available for another five to 10 years.
Bush doesn't dispute the cost of the treatment either. He said proton radiation roughly costs about twice as much as conventional radiation. Claridge said before insurance, he paid around $100,000. The two doctors said only three to four proton radiation centers exist around the country because of the expensive prices.
To Claridge, however, the money was well worth it. After 11 years, he's still never had a relapse.
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