September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. And in addition to the importance of getting routine prostate checks, one local man and his wife want to encourage other men to be aware of their treatment options for prostate cancer.
Billy Boyle and his wife Rita recently sat down with The News to discuss what they saw as the overwhelming benefits of proton therapy in the treatment of Billy's prostate cancer.
There were several things that led the couple to consider proton therapy after Billy was diagnosed with prostate cancer last fall.
Perhaps the largest motivator was the fact that Billy had already been through chemotherapy treatments a decade before after being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2001.
Back then proton therapy wasn't available, as it was still being researched as a cancer treatment option, so Billy had to have surgery to remove the tumor in his colon. He then underwent chemotherapy, with treatments once a week for 6 weeks and then once every other week for the remainder of his 24 chemo treatments.
The couple was having to drive to Enid for the chemo treatments and Rita said, "they made Billy so tired that he'd be asleep by the time we got out of Enid."
"The more treatments he'd have, the more tired he was," she said. "And his eyes got puffy. And even now when he gets out in the cold, his eyes will still water. The chemo also make him feel weak. It took him a long while to regain his strength back."
The couple had heard that regular radiation, which Billy's urologist had originally recommended after diagnosing his prostate cancer, would cause even more side effects.
"I had heard bad stories about regular radiation from people who had to take pills for the pain caused by the treatment. And some had really bad radiation burns," Billy said. "No matter what the doctor said, I didn't want those burns."
SON PREVIOUSLY HAD PROSTATE CANCER
Also the couple's own son Dale had been diagnosed with prostate cancer just a few years before in 2008.
At that time Rita said she had encouraged Dale to try to get proton therapy for his prostate cancer because she had recently watched a program on the Discovery Channel that discussed the benefits of proton therapy, and in particular it's ability to treat tumors precisely.
"On the Discovery Channel show they talked about a tumor that was wrapped around this person's spinal cord. With proton therapy they were able to go in and kill the tumor and not damage the spinal cord at all. I just thought that was amazing," Rita said.
However, 4 years ago, proton therapy treatment centers were even more rare than they are now. Rita said there were just 3 centers across the nation in 2008, and now there are 10 locations.
While there was a ProCure proton therapy center being built in Oklahoma in 2008, "it wasn't ready to treat patients until 2009," Rita said.
"I hate that because our son went to M. D. Anderson and they just took out his prostate," she said.
She said that while her son was young enough that his muscles could help compensate for the lack of a prostate, at the age of 75, Billy would have faced other complications, such as incontinence, if his prostate had been surgically removed.
But it wasn't just the risks of surgery that the couple wanted to avoid.
Rita explained they had been told that there was a greater chance of Billy's cancer reoccurring with regular radiation than with proton therapy.
"They said that if he had regular radiation, it would weaken the area around his bladder and colon and he could get cancer again," she said.
So the couple was glad that they could consider proton therapy as an alternative.
FEW SIDE EFFECTS
Billy said the main reason he chose proton therapy is because it presented fewer side effects and shorter recovery time than other treatment options.
For example, while still undergoing his own proton treatments in June, Billy returned to Woodward for the Relay for Life walk.
While at the Relay, Rita said they saw one of their friends who was undergoing treatment for brain cancer and "his head was so swollen from radiation."
"I had known this man for 30 years, but did not recognize him," Billy said.
In comparison, he said that with his own proton therapy, "I had no side effects."
Although he understood the treatments can affect some people differently, Billy said that he could hardly tell he was being treated.
He said he would go in and lie on a table and then it would take the nurses and doctors longer to make sure the table was in the exact right spot, so that the protons would be aimed directly at the prostate, than it would take for the 5 minute treatment itself.
"I would always kid them and say 'I don't think you're doing anything.' Because I wouldn't feel anything," Billy said.
He said there was "no comparison" between how much better he felt with proton therapy over chemotherapy.
Where he had been tired after chemo treatments a decade before, he said he had plenty of energy after his daily proton therapy treatments.
"I want to stress that I felt good enough to work all afternoon after my treatments 5 days a week," Billy said.
After receiving his treatments in the morning, Billy said he would go help one of his grandsons with making renovations at his home in Oklahoma City. He said he helped on a variety of projects at the house from building fence to laying concrete.
The couple said the proton therapy gave them a great opportunity to spend time with family, because in addition to helping one grandson renovate his home, a second grandson gave them a place to stay at his apartment in Oklahoma City on weeknights while Billy received his 44 proton treatments.
And on Friday afternoons the couple would return to their home southwest of Woodward and catch up on yard work during the weekend before returning for the next week of treatments on Monday morning.
Even after traveling home following the Friday treatments, Billy said he had enough energy to tend to his lawn, which thanks to this summer's heat, was no easy task.
The couple said they met several other people who had similar stories of experiencing no ill-effects following their treatment.
"We met this one girl from England who was getting treatments 2 times a day, and she said she had no side effects either," Rita said.
"She'd get done and be ready to go dancing," Billy said. "You just have to see it to believe it."
WHAT IS PROTON THERAPY?
Dr. Gary Larson, a proton radiation oncologist with ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Oklahoma City, used a weapon metaphor to try to explain the difference between radiation and proton therapy.
"Radiation is the process by which beams of x-rays go through the body and give radiation to the tumor in order to kill the cancer cells. These x-rays go straight through like a bullet and damage everything, including healthy tissue as it goes through," Larson said. "With proton therapy, protons travel all the way to the tumor, giving almost no radiation to the surrounding healthy tissue. Then once they reach the tumor, they expel all their energy, so it's more like a depth charge."
The oncologist said that is what helps make proton therapy so valuable for treating certain kinds of cancer, such as brain tumors and head and neck cancer.
In addition, Larson said proton therapy is a good option for "all children who need radiation therapy."
That's because "conventional radiation can cause bones and soft tissue to not develop properly, which is not good in children who are still growing, especially when it comes to brain cancer treatment," he said.
WORTH THE COST
One detractor to proton therapy is perhaps the cost of the treatments, which can be expensive since the therapy uses advanced technology and state-of-the-art equipment.
Larson noted that is also one of the reasons that there aren't more proton therapy centers, as the ProCure center in Oklahoma City alone cost $120 million to build.
But for Billy and Rita, their insurance covered the costs of the treatments.
Also the couple say they see the benefits of the treatment as worth the cost.
"People have said it's more expensive, but so what? If you don't have the pain, so what if it costs more?" Billy said.
"And even if it is more expensive, it probably costs less in the long run because you don't have to treat for all the side effects and after effects of radiation," Rita said.
For Billy and Rita, proton therapy was invaluable, which is why they are happy to now be advocates for the treatments.
"We are definitely advertising for it," Rita said. "So if someone has a tumor and they catch it early, they should definitely check it (proton therapy) out. Because after we went through this and the good experience we had with it, we felt bad for those who don't know about it."
To learn more about proton therapy and the ProCure treatment center, visit www.procure.com/ok.