The proton experience

The proton patient experience is featured in new awareness campaign promoting Penn Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center.

Decked in biker gear — spandex, not leather, thank you — a fit, middle-aged man steps briskly down his front steps, hops on his road bike and begins his 20-mile ride to Philadelphia for another proton beam treatment.

Two hours later, he’s on his bike pedaling toward home.

But it plays out for us in 30 seconds. And in high-definition video.

“Biking is Bill’s passion,” says the narrator, as we get a handlebar view of Philadelphia streets. “So when it came to fighting Bill’s cancer, it was something he couldn’t give up. That’s why he chose proton therapy at Penn Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center. Proton therapy has fewer side effects, so he can stay on his bike even during treatment. Not giving up what you love is worth Penn Medicine.”

Penn Medicine, the branded name of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, is featuring Bill and several other proton patients in a new television advertising campaign currently airing in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Ideas for the TV spots came out of discussions Penn Medicine’s marketing department had with the Roberts Proton Therapy Patient Alumni Group. The group, made up of more than 125 proton therapy patients, meets twice a month. Members support patients currently in treatment. And they are pursuing a number of initiatives to keep their tight-knit proton community engaged.

A formalized Patient and Family Advisory Council meets quarterly and provides advice about the patient experience at Roberts.

“Proton patients and their families are the real champions for proton therapy,” said Fern Nibauer-Cohen, the associate director of program development at Roberts Proton Therapy Center. “They want to take it to the streets.”

And they are. Not just in TV spots and magazine advertisements, but in video testimonials and blogs posted online. Roberts patient alumni and family members are traveling around the Philadelphia metropolitan area and talking candidly about their proton experiences to faith groups and community organizations. They are leading cancer patient support groups. They’re being interviewed by local news media.

“It has been amazing to develop this group of patients who truly are interested in raising awareness about proton therapy as a treatment option — based on their own experiences,” said Nibauer-Cohen. “They are all interested in bringing this message into their own communities, and sharing their stories about their cancer diagnosis, treatment and survivorship with others. Their mission is personal which is what makes it so powerful.”

Too often, she said, patients and family members share stories about the numerous outside barriers to even the prospect of proton treatment. They don’t want others to go through the same struggles, especially after having lived the proton experience at Penn Medicine.

“It’s very much the empowered patient who fights for this treatment option,” Nibauer-Cohen added, particularly men with prostate cancer. “Prostate patients are so passionate about sharing their stories and letting newly-diagnosed men know there are other treatment options.”

But it wasn’t just prostate patients who jumped at the opportunity to promote proton beam treatments at Penn Medicine. An open casting call saw patients treated for pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, lymphatic cancer, brain cancer, and head and neck cancer sitting before video producers to tell their stories.