Seven years ago, Nikki Burleigh of Rahway, New Jersey, was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent conventional radiation therapy and a lobectomy to remove the affected part of her lung. Her treatment was successful, and she received regular checkups with her pulmonologist and oncologist for several years.

But in December 2019, a routine CT scan revealed that Nikki’s lung cancer returned. 

“Surgery was not an option, and my radiation oncologist told me that conventional radiation was not an option because the cancer was too close to my vital organs [which had already been exposed to radiation],” said Nikki, now age 75. 

“Conventional radiation therapy uses x-rays (also called photons) to target tumors, but x-rays scatter to nearby healthy tissues,” said Nicholas DeNunzio, M.D., Ph.D., the Director of Proton Therapy for Hackensack Meridian Health and a radiation oncologist with fellowship training in proton therapy. 

Instead, Nikki’s initial radiation oncologist recommended proton beam therapy, also known as proton therapy — a highly targeted type of radiation therapy that minimizes radiation exposure to surrounding tissues. 

“Proton therapy uses particles (protons), which enter the body and release most of their energy upon impact with the tumor. This results in an approximate 60 percent reduction in the amount of radiation delivered to healthy tissues,” said Dr. DeNunzio. “Proton therapy is often used as an initial, curative cancer treatment, but for patients like Nikki, it can also be incredibly useful to treat cancer recurrence.”

For Nikki, proton therapy meant that she could safely receive higher doses of radiation therapy to treat her recurrent cancer with a lower risk of toxicity to her nearby organs. 

“I trust my radiation oncologist, and when he recommended proton therapy, I knew I needed to do it,” said Nikki. 

Technologically Advanced Care Close to Home 

Fortunately, ProCure Proton Therapy Center (ProCure NJ) in Somerset, New Jersey, offered proton therapy within a 25-minute drive of Nikki’s home. 

“Our goal was to bring the first proton facility to the most densely populated region in the country; an area that we felt exhibited the greatest need. Just eight years later, we recently graduated our 5,000th patient to complete treatment, which affirmed our vision and felt deeply gratifying,” noted Dr. Brian Chon, ProCure Proton Therapy Center Medical Director. 

ProCure NJ is the first and most advanced proton center in NJ, the only center in NJ to offer pencil beam scanning proton therapy. Procure has successfully treated over 5,000 patients with protons making Procure the one of the most experienced proton centers in the country. Procure is now affiliated with Hackensack Meridian Health. ProCure NJ offers Pencil Beam Scanning (PBS) — the most advanced type of proton therapy.

“PBS utilizes an ultra-narrow proton beam that deposits the radiation dose more precisely within the tumor — ‘painting’ the tumor with radiation in layers, minimizing radiation exposure to healthy tissues, and reducing the risks of side effects,” said Dr. DeNunzio. 

“Hackensack Meridian Health’s clinical affiliation with ProCure NJ provides patients who receive cancer care at HMH-affiiliated cancer centers [including John Theurer Cancer Center in Hackensack, JFK Medical Center in Edison, Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank, Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, Ocean Medical Center in Brick, and South Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin] with access to the most technologically advanced method to deliver radiation treatment and allows our radiation oncologists to customize the best treatment options,” said Andre Goy, M.D., M.S., chairman and executive director, John Theurer Cancer Center. 

“Our affiliation with ProCure NJ gives our adult and pediatric patients access to advanced proton therapy technology right here in New Jersey,” said Mark Sparta, president and chief hospital executive, Hackensack University Medical Center. “Now, we can offer this innovative type of radiation therapy to our patients without the need for them to travel far from home.” 

For Nikki, ProCure NJ was a short, 25-minute drive from home, which contributed to her smooth, comfortable treatment experience. 

Starting Proton Therapy 

Nikki started receiving proton therapy at ProCure NJ in February 2020. Before her first treatment, she said the staff made a mold of her back that helped ensure she was positioned correctly for treatment.

“They had this space-age machine that was capable of delivering 360-degree radiation treatment,” said Nikki. “It looked like a barrel but was much more open, so I didn’t feel claustrophobic. The machine gave my radiation from all angles, including underneath when I was lying on my back.” 

Nikki — a music lover — was especially pleased to learn that she could listen to music during her treatment. Her selection: classic rock. 

“There was no pain, and I had to stay still. I was relaxing and listening to music,” said Nikki. “When Elton John and Stevie Nicks came on, I had to be careful not to start dancing and moving around.” 

Nikki said everyone at ProCure NJ was “professional, yet sensitive and caring.” 

“They took a very difficult situation — cancer — and made the treatment experience as pleasant as possible under the circumstances,” said Nikki. 

A Graduation Celebration 

After 15 treatments over four weeks, Nikki was ready for proton therapy “graduation” in March 2020. 

“When I was ready to leave after my last treatment, they played my favorite disco song — ‘Hot Stuff’ by Donna Summer,” said Nikki. “The entire staff was dancing and singing, and I got to ring a special bell. It was a memorable way to end my treatment.”

 But even with her special send-off, Nikki still kept in touch with her ProCure NJ treatment team. 

“The follow-up was excellent,” said Nikki. “My physician was very concerned about my well-being, and nearly a year later, I am still under his care. 

After her experience, Nikki said she would recommend proton therapy at ProCure NJ.