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Prostate cancer: An Air Force officer's latest battle

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altonwhitleyandwife.jpgBy Col. Alton Whitley

I retired from the U.S. Air Force after serving 26 years as a fighter pilot.  After that, I served another 15 years as a high school Air Force Junior ROTC instructor. My military service included two tours in Vietnam and combat action in Operation Desert Storm, where I served as the commander of the unit that flew the Fii7A stealth fighter. 

But my latest battle came in February 2013, when, at age 67, I received a prostate cancer diagnosis.

I had watched my Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test scores climb slowly over several years, but a dramatic increase in a recent physical exam had motivated me to have a biopsy. The biopsy came back positive for prostate cancer.

Choosing my prostate cancer treatment                   
I diligently evaluated my prostate cancer treatment options. I discussed a variety of cancer treatments with my primary care physician, my urologist, a radiation oncologist and other men who had experienced prostate cancer. But I was not particularly pleased with what I heard regarding the options available to me in my hometown. 

I kept going back to an option I had discovered on the website for MD Anderson: proton therapy.

Unfortunately, I could not find anyone that I could talk to face-to-face about proton therapy. So my wife Ann and I decided to visit MD Anderson to get a second opinion about my prostate cancer diagnosis and to learn all we could about proton therapy.

Why proton therapy was the right choice for me
As an Air Force stealth fighter aviator during Desert Storm, I was tasked with employing a new and innovative technology, the F-117A, in a dangerous, unforgiving environment. There were naysayers who said the aircraft was too expensive, but I knew that it would enable bombs to reach targets without collateral damage to civilians and allow us to return home safely.

When I flew into the teeth of battle with the explosions of antiaircraft artillery and surface to air missiles raging about me, I knew I was extremely fortunate to be in that stealth aircraft. 

Likewise, when I found MD Anderson and proton therapy, I knew my treatment team could attack my tumor with precision and destroy that target with maximum effect and minimal, if any, side effects. As a patient faced with a disease that could kill me, I wanted to go into that fight with the most capable treatment and one that will cause minimal if any collateral damage to other parts of my body. 

Not only did I want to survive, but I wanted to preserve my quality of life. And through proton therapy I did just that. Throughout my treatment, I increased my walking to three or four miles a day and spent a couple of hours at the gym at least three times a week.
Most importantly, I completed my prostate cancer treatment and was declared well on my way to being cancer-free in early November 2013. 

In both the Air Force and at MD Anderson, I was blessed that people had shown the initiative and determination to pursue new and evolving technologies that would benefit humanity and not base that decision solely on the cost.

I decided to come to MD Anderson because I knew it would offer the best treatment available. What I didn't know was that this journey would also lead me to a caring, professional and competent medical team that not only is the best at what they do, but also inspired, comforted and cared for me in ways I never imagined possible.

Prostate cancer is one of the cancers MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our Prostate Cancer Moon Shot.

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