Attention Michigan Veterans: The VA Covers This Specialized Cancer Treatment

Author: Jasmine Brown

Veteran with Mask in front of US flag

Proton therapy is one of the most advanced treatment options available to cancer patients. One of the first questions that cancer patients often have when offered this innovative treatment option is, ‘Does my insurance cover it?’

For Veterans who are receiving VA health care benefits, that answer is often yes. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA), following the American Society for Radiation Oncology’s (ASTRO) model policies for radiation oncology services, has identified that proton therapy delivers ionizing radiation to cancer, destroys tumor cells with greater precision and results in less radiation doses to surrounding normal tissue. As a result, proton therapy may be the preferred choice of treatment when healthy tissue sparing is of clinical benefit to the patient.

“Proton therapy is a highly precise sub-atomic particle therapy that stops accurately at the targeted cancer,” said Hesham Gayar, MD, medical director of the McLaren Proton Therapy Center. “It makes cancer treatment tolerable by delivering higher doses of radiation to cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue and organs, minimizing side effects for patients. In turn, patients have higher cure rates and improved expectancy of a cancer free, better-quality life after treatment.”

Due to VHA policy updates that were made in 2018, many Veterans across the country gained access to proton therapy, a treatment that research has shown improves the quality of life of cancer survivors. The memorandum sent to VHA network and facility directors says the decision for proton therapy treatments is determined by the VHA attending radiation oncologist in collaboration with a proton therapy specialist and you, the Veteran.  If radiation is a treatment option given to you by your VHA oncologist(s), ask about proton therapy.

However, though there are over 35 proton therapy treatment centers located in the U.S., access to this life-saving form of cancer treatment is still a challenge. According to the National Association of Proton Therapy, only a small fraction of cancer patients has access to and are receiving proton therapy.

McLaren Health Care established the McLaren Proton Therapy Center in Flint, part of the Karmanos Cancer Network, to significantly improve cancer patients’ access to this unique treatment that helps to save lives and reduce suffering from this disease.

“We are extremely proud to be part of the radiation oncology community in Michigan that rivals the best institutions in the country, and to contribute to the advancement of Michigan’s healthcare, by providing proton therapy to its communities and beyond,” said Vahagn Nazaryan, executive director of the McLaren Proton Therapy Center.

Two scenarios that the VHA might consider proton therapy treatment is when certain cancers require retreatment, or reirradiation, and when the minimization of a patient’s overall radiation dose is crucial for their health during and after treatment.

Veteran in Vietnam Hat

“Because proton therapy is targeted at the tumor and spares surrounding tissue, one of the advantages is that it can be used to treat cancer when a patient has been told nothing else can be done,” said Dr. Gayar. “If the patient has had previous radiation treatments, with proton therapy we can avoid reirradiation to the tissue surrounding the tumor that may not be able to tolerate more conventional radiation.” 

The VHA may also provide coverage for Veterans who participate in an approved clinical trial. For example, breast cancer and some non-metastatic prostate cancer patients who have been approved for certain clinical trials may receive consideration for coverage for proton therapy. The opportunity to participate in clinical trials through Karmanos Cancer Institute is available to McLaren Proton Therapy Center patients.

You may find a list of other cancer cases in which proton therapy is a beneficial treatment for any patient, here.

There are three ways for Veterans to find out if proton therapy is the right cancer treatment for them:

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