Nearly five years ago, Dr. Walter Atkinson was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Here he shares his journey that led him to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center for treatment and describes his life after cancer.
By Dr. Walter Atkinson, Proton Therapy Center alumni
When my urologist told me that I had prostate cancer he insisted that I had to have surgery immediately. I astounded him by telling him that I did not have to have anything done. It was my cancer and I was going to be the one to decide what to do about it -- whether that included surgery or doing nothing. He didn't like that. He offered no other treatment options.
I began to read everything I could on the subject. I quickly found out about radiation seeds, IMRT radiation, and cryotherapy as options. As I read further, the choices looked grim since all carried side effect profiles that were less than enticing to consider. Impotence was one thing, but bowel or urinary incontinence issues alter your life in serious ways.
I continued to practice dentistry and enjoy life, knowing that it was not likely I would make it to 103 like Jiminy Cricket, but I was not going to wear a diaper. I was 57 years old and I was going out on my terms.
After a few months, I heard about proton therapy and its supposed low side effects. Why had none of the doctors I had consulted ever mentioned this before? It was certainly too good to be true.
I made an appointment for the following week and Dr. Lee informed me that I was, indeed, a candidate and fit the protocol for proton therapy. I was a Gleason 7, six of 12 biopsies positive with a PSA of about 5.7 and rising. I started hormone therapy since the center would not open for another six weeks.
I was in the earliest of groups of patients as soon as the center opened. Only one of the four gantries was operational and only one shift of treatment was ongoing. I and my buddies all learned together.
I was practicing dentistry in Baton Rouge, La., and flying my own airplane back and forth to Houston on a daily basis. Each day, I was seeing my own patients in Baton Rouge and having cancer treatment in Houston. It was a whirlwind. I never missed a treatment and I never missed a day of work. The proton therapy presented no ill effects that kept me from working. I joked with the proton therapy team that they should turn the machine on, since I wasn't feeling anything!
Time flew by in its own way. We each took our turn hitting the gong as we finished treatment.
Once my treatment was complete, life continued as it always had, except that I no longer had cancer and my family was no longer planning a funeral. I continued to partake in all of the activities I had always enjoyed. I had no side effects to report. I was not impotent, nor was I suffering any bowel or urinary side effects. Nothing.
I am now four years out of treatment and retired from dentistry. Jiminy Cricket never had it so good. I live in Colorado where I am a ski instructor in Vail and enjoy all of the physical activities anyone could ask for. I sailed an oceanic sailboat race this summer and hiked to the top of Mt. Elbert at 14,333 feet, the second highest mountain in North America. I have been building furniture, am restoring an old Jeep and ride my bike regularly. It's a good day to be alive.
Thank you, Dr. Lee, and all of the fine people at MD Anderson who made this possible. Now, if you guys will just do the workout I need to do each day to get ready for another ski season ...