A Patient Story: The Beginnings of Proton Beam Therapy

In 1981, Bob Pierson had a normal routine physical, but he was experiencing tiny dust like specks in his right eye. Though he was told these were normal “floaters,” he did have them evaluated by an ophthalmologist. When he saw the doctor at the Cleveland Clinic, the floaters were gone, but a large mass was noted in the other eye. There were no symptoms, no pain, no floaters, and no visual loss. What he had was a large malignant tumor in his eye.

At the time, removal of the eye (enucleation) was the standard treatment. Pierson’s ophthalmologist sent him to Mass. Eye and Ear, where a new treatment was being conducted. This treatment focused a beam of radiation at the tumor, which then interfered with the growth of the cancer cells, and forced the tumor to shrink. This procedure was developed by Evangelos S. Gragoudas, M.D., Charles Edward Whitten Professor of Ophthalmology and Director of Mass. Eye and Ear's Retina Service, in cooperation with scientists at Harvard’s High Energy Physics Department and a team of radiotherapists from Massachusetts General Hospital.

The first proton beam irradiation treatment was administered in 1975 to a patient with intraocular malignant melanoma. Since that time, more than 4,000 patients have been treated with proton beam irradiation, coming from all over the world.