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My Prostate Cancer: Decision, Treatment and Aftermath

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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

Waltercopy.jpgWhen 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.


Of the four choices I learned about quickly, I wasn't interested in any of them. I have lived an extremely full life, have had way too much fun and was not the least bit interested in being compromised in any of those fashions. I decided to do nothing and let the disease run its course and be done with it. That's a drastic decision -- looking the Grim Reaper straight in the eye -- but after convincing my family that that was my choice, they settled in for the duration.

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 then dug in to find out what this was all about. I read volumes and learned about the Bragg Effect. I then discovered that a Proton Center to be run by MD Anderson was soon to open in Houston. I called and was told that the center was planned to be operational in a few months, but that I could come for a consultation with Dr. Andrew Lee to see if I was a candidate for treatment.

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. 

The entire staff was new to the proton center and was steep on the learning curve as well. They were terrific. The radiation therapists were outstanding, highly skilled, obviously having been thoroughly trained, and very empathetic. 

As we went through treatment, with no one ahead of us to look to for advice or council, we openly discussed our experiences. Actually, it was very funny. We were all wondering if everyone else was experiencing the same things we were. We were! There is comfort in numbers.

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. 

After a few months, I asked Dr. Lee if everyone was experiencing the same lack of side effects. He confirmed that the side effect profile was extremely low -- lower than they had expected.

Walter 4 years post-treatment at 14,333 feet atop Mount Elbert.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 ...

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