The newest edition of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines now recognizes proton therapy as a radiation therapy option for head and neck cancer, as well as esophageal cancer treatment. The importance of these guidelines is crucial, as physicians, nurses, insurance payers, patients and their families use these guidelines in the decision-making process during their cancer care journey. The guidelines are established through an extensive review of evidence. This evidence includes clinical trials and current treatment protocols as well as recommendations made by representatives of the 27 leading cancer centers in the United States.
Why are the NCCN guidelines important?
NCCN guidelines cover 97 percent of cancers affecting patients in the United States and are updated on a continual basis to reflect new data and clinical information. The head and neck cancer guidelines were updated in February 2017, followed by updates to the esophageal cancer guidelines in April 2017.
When treating head and neck tumors, proton therapy is effective in minimizing radiation to vital structures such as the eyes, mouth, salivary glands and brain. Additionally, proton therapy has fewer side effects than standard radiation such as mouth ulcers, nausea, damage to salivary glands and loss of taste resulting in weight loss and feeding tubes. When treating esophageal cancer, it can be difficult to protect critical structures near the esophagus such as the heart, lungs and spinal cord. Proton therapy offers patients an effective way to treat the esophagus.
The updated NCCN guidelines will also help patients seeking coverage for proton therapy from their health plan. Insurers typically use the NCCN guidelines as the standard for cancer treatment. The revised guidelines could help with more approvals for proton therapy as a form of treatment and less denials of coverage.
At the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center, we are continuously working toward our goal of helping patients fight cancer.