First Breast Cancer Patient Completes Proton Therapy at Scripps

Short, precise radiation treatment with protons spares woman's heart


A 71-year-old ukulele player from La Mesa has hit a high note in cancer care, after recently becoming the first breast cancer patient to complete proton therapy in San Diego County.

Anastasia Custis Berkheimer finished her proton therapy for breast cancer treatment at the newly opened Scripps Proton Therapy Center on March 17. Anastasia, who has a heart condition, chose proton therapy because of its ability to kill the tumor on her left breast, while protecting her heart and lung, located just beneath.

Anastasia said the relatively short two-week treatment time is allowing her to quickly resume playing in a ukulele band called The Ukulele Babes. The band has performed for the past two years to raise spirits at local senior citizen homes. Earlier this week, Anastasia was greeted by her bandmates after her final treatment at the proton center and the trio launched into a celebratory concert. Anastasia said she can’t wait for her next performance with The Ukulele Babes on April 14 in La Mesa.

Second time in breast cancer treatment

This is Anastasia’s second battle against breast cancer. Two years ago, she travelled to Los Angeles for more than three months of X-ray radiation therapy, which she said left her with skin rashes, nausea and fatigue. In contrast, she reported no physical side effects from proton therapy. Following her treatment at Scripps, Anastasia shows no signs of cancer.

“A lot of breast cancer patients may not realize that we have a great new treatment option right in our own backyard,” Anastasia said. “Proton therapy is so precise, they could kill the cancer without damaging my heart.”

Precise cancer treatment that spares healthy organs and tissue

According to Anastasia’s physician, Huan Giap, MD, PhD, conventional X-ray radiation treatment would have affected Anastasia’s heart, raising her probability of developing heart disease later. “X-ray beams continue past the tumor, but protons can be controlled to stop around the tumor area, without exposing the heart and lung to unnecessary radiation,” Dr. Giap said.

“As we get better at curing cancer and people are living longer, we need to be increasingly concerned about the short- and long-term side effects of our treatments. And where possible, we also want to shorten the duration of treatments to minimize the impact on patients’ daily lives, which is possible with proton therapy,” Dr. Giap said.

A 2013 report in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women who received X-ray treatments to their left breast developed a higher risk for heart disease, which was directly linked to the dose and volume of heart that was irradiated during treatment.

Opened in February, the Scripps Proton Therapy Center is just the 15th such center in the United States and fourth west of the Rockies. Advanced pencil-beam scanning technology at the center allows doctors to “paint” radiation onto tumors with more precision than previously possible.

In some early-stage breast cancer patients like Anastasia, doctors can safely deliver a higher daily dose of proton radiation to part of the breast over two weeks, instead of treating the whole breast over six to seven weeks with traditional X-ray radiation.

Proton therapy has been used with patients since the 1950s. Its safety and effectiveness in treating a variety of tumor sites has been shown in numerous peer-reviewed medical journals. Proton therapy has an established history of reimbursement by insurers.

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Stephen Carpowich

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