New cancer treatment offers patients hope; powerful economic stimulus for Peoria

Josh Swank

Danette and Josh Swank decided on proton beam therapy at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for his cancer treatment. The couple are among many people in Peoria who are advocating to bring this advanced cancer treatment here. Josh Swank is resuming his normal quality of life following treatment, something uncertain had he undergone traditional radiation for his rare form of cancer. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

There are only about three dozen proton beams in the world, and only about 20 are in the United States. Danette and Josh Swank would like to see one added to the repertoire of medical treatments available in Peoria.

Proton beam therapy is the most precise, advanced form of radiation available.

When Josh Swank, 42, was diagnosed with a rare form of tongue cancer nine months ago, the couple explored all their options and selected proton beam therapy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

His treatment began in January. The couple rented a two-bedroom apartment in Rochester. Danette Swank, president of Philippi-Hagenbuch, commuted alternating weeks from her family business in Peoria to the apartment in Rochester. Family and friends from around the country filled in the other times so Josh was not on his own.

Treatment was like a full time job from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later.

OSF Saint Francis Health Care is working to secure a proton beam for Peoria.

The hospital declined to provide an interview but issued this statement: “OSF HealthCare constantly evaluates the use of technology that could be of benefit to people in the communities it serves. Proton Beam therapy is one of those areas that holds tremendous potential when it comes to the treatment of certain cancers. At this time, OSF is in the exploratory stage of locating such therapy in the Peoria area … .”

Outcomes are better for specific types of cancer with proton beam therapy versus conventional radiation. The proton beam can be especially helpful with types of pediatric cancer. Children especially benefit with proton beam therapy because their organs are still developing. With proton beam therapy, a pencil-thin beam targets only the cancer, and surrounding tissue is not damaged.

With conventional radiation, Swank could have impaired his vision, teeth, sinuses, brain, spine and salivary glands and his sense of taste. There was also the possibility of facial deformities. Using this highly targeted treatment, his tumor shrank and disappeared without damage to surrounding tissue.

Mayo had to construct a new building to house the proton beam and launched operation in 2016. There are four treatment rooms that operate from 6 a.m. to late into the night treating four patients sequentially in each time slot. Swank’s treatment was about 45 minutes five days a week for seven weeks. The rest of his day was filled with doctor visits, acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, speech therapy, exercises and testing.

Proton beam therapy is more expensive than traditional radiation but is becoming more widely covered by insurance. Medicare covers it. The Swank’s insurance originally rejected the treatment, and the couple had to appeal that rejection several times before getting approval.

Josh Swank did not use tobacco and only alcohol in moderation. His cancer was not linked with any bad habits.

The Swanks believe all people should have health insurance coverage.

“The success rate is wonderful with the proton beam, but the quality of life after treatment is tremendous,” Josh Swank said. “Cancer is a very, very difficult thing to go through, and you want your quality of life to return after treatment.”

He was declared cancer-free three months ago.

“Not everyone has the luxury to put their lives on hold and go up to Mayo,” he said. “Peoria has such a solid, strong medical community, this therapy would only enhance that and take it to the next level. We would attract patients from throughout the Midwest. When you can get your treatment close to home and maintain connections with family and friends, that helps you.”

Chris Setti, CEO at the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, said if OSF secures the proton beam for Peoria, the economic stimulus would be significant.

“It would have a ripple effect through the entire community,” he said. “These facilities are huge economic generators.”

Proton beam facilities are estimated to cost from about $150 million to $225 million.

Josh Swank quoted some statistics about the facility at Mayo:

Construction of the building required 230,000 tons of structural steel. Walls are three feet of solid concrete, about 60,000 bathtubs full of concrete. The equivalent of 74,000 bathtubs of dirt was excavated for the building.

Danette Swank said, “Securing the proton beam would stimulate long-term economic development for the (Peoria) community at large. I feel it could grow into something very powerful.”

Clare Howard

Clare Howard is the editor of the Community Word. She can be reached at

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