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Proton Therapy Beams into South Jersey

The exterior of the Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Proton Therapy Center, illuminated as a “beacon of hope” as part of the preview celebration.
The exterior of the Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Proton Therapy Center, illuminated as a “beacon of hope” as part of the preview celebration.

Five years ago, Deb Harris of Voorhees, N.J., was diagnosed with stage-four glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. She underwent a successful surgery at Penn Medicine, but that surgery was just the start. She continued coming back for chemotherapy and radiation treatment — specifically proton radiation at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia. It was lifesaving care, but it also required commitment. In Harris’ case, for six weeks, five days a week, her friends and family drove her from Voorhees to Philadelphia for her treatments.

Now cancer free, Harris is grateful for the extraordinary care she received — and also glad that, soon, people in her community who face similar cancer journeys can have an easier time with advanced care closer to home.

Two renowned health systems are bringing the most advanced form of radiation treatment to cancer patients in South Jersey, with the creation of the Penn Medicine |Virtua Health Proton Therapy Center in Voorhees.

The $45 million facility will be the first proton therapy center in South Jersey and among fewer than 50 in the United States. Its opening will follow closely on the heels of the Proton Therapy Center at the Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. Both the Lancaster proton center and the new suburban New Jersey site, on the Virtua Voorhees Hospital campus, provide local patients the added convenience of being nearer to home and loved ones while undergoing treatment and recovery. Patients receive care informed by more than a decade of experience at Penn Medicine, where the Roberts Proton Therapy Center has been a pioneer in the field and a world leader in research and clinical training in proton therapy.

The technology can seem like science fiction — involving the acceleration of sub-atomic, cancer-eliminating particles to about 450 million miles per hour. In reality, though, this leading-edge facility will bring a new pathway to care to people with cancer from across the region.

Cancer survivor Deb Harris with her partner on a vacation
Deb Harris

“Proton therapy offers new hope for people with complex or recurring cancers, and we are thrilled to bring this world-class care to our community,” said Stephanie Fendrick, FACHE, MBA, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Virtua Health.

The 8,600-square-foot center, which started construction in June 2020, is expected to open to patients by early 2023.

“This is also a major milestone in Virtua’s longtime partnership with Penn Medicine, which is a global leader in proton therapy,” added Fendrick, who helped bring the new facility to fruition.

“We’re very proud to partner with Virtua to deliver this revolutionary treatment to South Jersey residents,” said James Metz, MD, chair of Radiation Oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “As an international leader in cancer care, we’ve trained more than 70% of the clinicians using proton therapy around the world.”

For Deb Harris, who has been cancer-free for more than four years, it’s clear that bringing this expertise close to home will make a big difference.

“It brings me joy to know that, starting very soon, my South Jersey neighbors will have an easier, more accessible option should they need similar care,” she said at a preview event at the Voorhees center earlier this month. “When you’re facing cancer, anything that makes life easier and simpler is a blessing.”

Since her recovery, Harris has gone skydiving, visited London, Paris, and most recently Cyprus, and made special memories with her family and friends. “Wherever I go and with everything I do, I recognize — and appreciate — how proton therapy made it all possible,” she said.

Advantages of Proton Therapy

Proton therapy is a painless, noninvasive treatment that uses a beam of high-energy protons to get rid of cancer cells.

Protons are positively charged particles within an atom. Doctors finely control the proton beam, so it precisely hits the cancer and then stops, preventing radiation from moving through healthy tissue and surrounding organs.

This advanced form of radiation therapy offers new potential for recovery, survival, and improved quality of life. In particular, it’s an important treatment option for tumors located near highly sensitive areas (such as the spinal cord, heart, and brain) or for those that cannot be fully removed by surgery.

The treatment can be used for many cancer types, including brain, spine, gastrointestinal, lung, breast, gynecologic, kidney, lymphoma, mesothelioma, oropharyngeal, and prostate.

Massive Technology and a Warm Environment

Executives stand in front of the Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Proton Therapy Center
From left to right: Dennis W. Pullin, FACHE, president and CEO, Virtua Health; Lori Gustave, MBA, senior vice president and chief strategy officer, Penn Medicine; James Metz, MD, chair of Radiation Oncology, Penn Medicine; Stephanie Fendrick, FACHE, MBA, executive vice president and chief strategy officer, Virtua Health; Kevin B. Mahoney, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System

The new Proton Therapy Center is a two-story structure that is connected to the existing Penn Medicine |Virtua Health Radiation Oncology suite, and part of the comprehensive Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Cancer Program. The facility offers a full range of services, including evaluation, treatment, and access to clinical trials, some involving proton therapy.

A 90-ton device called a cyclotron is the primary component in the delivery of proton therapy. The cyclotron accelerates protons to two-thirds the speed of light about 450 million miles per hour. The high energy is needed to deliver targeted radiation to the desired depth in the body.

At that speed, protons travel from the cyclotron to the patient in about 60 nanoseconds — or 60 billionths of a second.

As part of this process, the cyclotron’s superconducting coils are cooled to 452 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Patients don’t see the cyclotron, as it sits in an underground vault, enclosed by concrete walls that are eight to 21 feet thick.

Another piece of technology, the 90-ton gantry, is also hidden behind the treatment room’s walls. This massive cylinder-shaped structure rotates 360 degrees to direct the proton beam at the best angles to hit the tumor. 

In addition to its single treatment room, the center contains a high-tech observation room for technicians to carefully monitor patients throughout the treatment. The average patient treatment visit will take about 30 minutes from arrival to departure.

“Our patients will find a warm, welcoming environment, where they can connect with their care team, receive treatment, and quickly return to their lives and their loved ones,” Fendrick said.  

The program expects to serve 100 patients in its first year, and can treat 200-plus individuals annually. About 28 staff members will work at the center, including nine new positions.

Partners in Caring for the Community

Penn Medicine and Virtua Health began their collaboration in 2015, providing South Jersey residents with access to comprehensive care closer to home from teams of Penn and Virtua clinicians. The partnership includes both cancer and neuroscience services.

The new Proton Therapy Center is part of the Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Cancer Program, which provides a full range of state-of-the-art cancer services. The program has locations in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties. Beyond the Voorhees location, the partnership includes the Virtua Samson Cancer Center in Moorestown and a center within the Virtua Health & Wellness Center – Washington Township.

“At the core of our partnership with Virtua is our commitment to making it convenient for patients to get the very best care, as close to their homes as possible,” said Kevin B. Mahoney, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “When patients need advanced care, we’re focused on giving them options that keep them near their families and friends. Less time traveling means more time focusing on recovery and doing the things that are most important to them and their loved ones.”

“Together, Penn and Virtua have already made a huge impact on cancer care, and the new Proton Therapy Center will provide even greater access to world-class care,” said Virtua President and CEO Dennis W. Pullin, FACHE. “It’s an incredible source of hope to have right here in South Jersey.”

For more information, visit Prospective patients and their doctors can begin scheduling consultation appointments by calling 888-847-8823.

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

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