iscoveries in physics have helped forge
dramatic advances in cancer treatment for over a century. In 1950-54, according to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year survival rate for all cancers was 35 percent; by 2000 it was 59 percent. With early detection and treatment, the five-year survival rate for screenable cancers is now 80 percent.
When Ernest and John Lawrence treated their mother’s cancer with radiation from their new cyclotron in 1931, they were experimenting just as others had with other forms of radiation. Within months of the discovery of X-rays in late 1895, therapists began treating countless ailments with Wilhelm Roentgen’s “new light.” By January of 1896, Emil Grubbe in Chicago
was already treating two cancer patients.
By trade, Grubbe was an electrician and metallurgist.
Now, accelerators producing X-rays, protons, neutrons or heavy ions
can be found at every major medical center in the U.S.—
planned and operated by medical physicists,
with treatment administered by radiation oncologists. Once an experiment, then a treatment of last resort, radiation therapy
has evolved into the treatment of choice for many cancers. Particle accelerators have an
integral role in today’s cancer therapy.