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Thoracic Cancers & Tumors Treatment Overview

As the only National Cancer Institute-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Georgia, Winship is a leader in the treatment of lung and other thoracic cancers, conducting innovative research and clinical trials that are transforming how these cancers are identified, treated, and survived.

The radiation oncologists at Emory Proton Therapy Center work with the multidisciplinary Lung cancer team at Winship, which includes experts in thoracic surgery, medical oncology, pulmonology, radiology, pathology, supportive oncology, dieticians, social workers, physical therapy, and cancer rehabilitation. Your radiation oncologist will work closely with these other specialists to customize your thoracic cancer treatment plan and coordinate your care.  We can also partner and coordinate with a patient’s existing care team, whether they are across town or around the world.

Proton Therapy for Thoracic Tumors and Cancers

A lung cancer diagnosis can be one of the biggest challenges you and your family will ever face. Our team is dedicated to helping you meet that challenge through supportive care using the most advanced treatments available. Proton therapy may be a more precise radiation option for treatment of your thoracic cancer to help protect important nearby organs like the heart and normal lung tissue. Our lung cancer specialists will work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan which aims for fewer side effects and improved quality of life.

What We Treat

  • Non-small cell lung cancer
  • Small cell lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Thymoma
  • Thymic carcinomas
  • Lung metastases
  • Mediastinal lymph nodes
  • Re-irradiation

Comparison of Proton and X-Ray Therapy

Proton Therapy

Proton therapy is an extremely precise form of radiation treatment that can often better focus the radiation to match the shape and depth of the target. After treating the target, protons stop, avoiding exit dose radiation through the body. By reducing or avoiding radiation to sensitive normal healthy tissues and organs, proton therapy may reduce some of the side effects that can occur as a result of radiation treatments.

X-Ray Therapy

X-ray based radiation typically requires more beams or angles to deliver the radiation to the target. Unlike proton therapy where the radiation stops at the target, x-rays continue to deliver radiation as they exit through the body. As a result, x-ray based treatments typically result in increased radiation to normal healthy tissues and organs.

Proton Therapy Spares Radiation to the Heart and Lungs

Proton Therapy for Thorcacic Cancer Illustration
Proton Therapy
Xray Therapy for Thorcacic Cancer Illustration
X-Ray Therapy


In treatment of thoracic tumors, proton therapy can reduce or avoid radiation to surrounding healthy tissue and organs. Depending on the tumor location and type, proton therapy may achieve the following benefits:

  • Reduced risk of inflammation of the heart (pericarditis) and future heart problems like hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), stiffening of the heart muscle (fibrosis, cardiomyopathy), and heart attacks.
  • Reduced risk of inflammation of the lungs (radiation pneumonitis), and problems with lung function (lung fibrosis).
  • Reduced risk of difficulty or pain with swallowing (dysphagia or odynophagia) or chronic narrowing of the esophagus (stricture).
  • Reducing or radiation to the bone marrow and circulating lymphocytes, which may help support the function of the immune system in taking on fighting cancer.
  • Reduced risk of low blood counts (anemia, neutropenia) which may support the body’s tolerance of chemotherapy.
  • Reduced risk of developing a future second tumor or cancer, which is most relevant in younger patients, those with a good prognosis and a long life expectancy, and those patients who may have genetic conditions putting them at higher risk for developing other cancers.

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What to Expect with Proton Therapy

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The first step in your care is a consultation. During consultation, we review your medical history, perform a physical exam, decide if any additional tests are needed, discuss all radiation options that may be appropriate for your treatment plan, make recommendations, and answer questions.

To plan your treatment, you will undergo a “simulation” or planning session. During this visit our radiation therapists will help position you the way you will be treated each day. A CT scan will be done to create a picture of you in the treatment position to design your radiation plan. It normally takes 10 days for the team to design the proton treatment plan and perform the quality assurance checks before treatment begins.

Proton therapy is typically delivered once daily during weekdays, Monday through Friday. Most patients with thoracic tumors or cancers receive five to six weeks of daily radiation. Some conditions, such as small lung cancers or metastases, can be treated in a shorter period of time such as five treatments over one to two weeks. While some situations are treated with radiation alone, proton therapy may be integrated with surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or other cancer treatments as part of a comprehensive plan of care.

Like other types of radiation, proton therapy treatments are invisible and painless. Most thoracic tumor treatments average 30 minutes each day in the treatment room. Some tumors in the chest move significantly while breathing. During your radiation planning process, your team will identify the most appropriate methods to manage tumor motion.

Patients are seen by the radiation oncology physician team weekly during treatment to monitor progress, answer questions, address concerns, and manage any side effects from treatment. Your radiation oncologist will discuss a plan to assess response to treatment and for long-term follow-up after therapy.

Studies on Proton Therapy in Thoracic Cancer

Our team has identified these studies as examples of the clinical benefits of proton therapy in thoracic cancer.

Patient Stories