Lung cancer survivor: Why I’m grateful for proton therapy

Before my lung cancer diagnosis in 2007, I didn’t know anything about proton therapy. But then I came to MD Anderson for a second opinion after surgery, and scans done there revealed an enlarged lymph node in my chest that nobody else had noticed.

Living in Houston, I was well aware of MD Anderson’s reputation. So when Dr. Garrett Walsh, Dr. David Grosshans and Dr. Ritsuko Komaki (now retired) said they thought I’d be a good candidate for proton therapy, I said OK. I trusted them completely.

One reason my doctors recommended proton therapy was because the cancerous lymph node was so close to my heart, and this would limit its exposure to radiation. I had about seven weeks of proton therapy daily under their supervision, along with a reduced dose of weekly chemotherapy to make it more effective. And I’ve been cancer-free ever since.

What I’ve learned about proton therapy

Since then, I’ve learned that proton therapy isn’t used to treat all types of cancer. It turns out I was actually one of the first lung cancer patients at MD Anderson to receive proton therapy back in 2007. But it’s being used to treat more and more types of cancer today.

The best thing about proton therapy is that it treats the cancer while minimizing radiation exposure to the rest of your body. So, normal, healthy tissues aren’t as affected, and there are typically fewer side effects than with traditional radiation therapy.

My proton therapy side effects

My diseased lymph node was also very close to my esophagus, so I did have some discomfort and trouble swallowing during treatment. But that didn’t keep me from eating well or doing anything else I wanted to.

Fortunately, those side effects completely went away after I finished proton therapy. I also had some very slight irritation on the skin of my chest and back, but it was minimal, and never anything that required treatment.

Why I keep returning to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center

Today, I return to MD Anderson every two years for follow-up scans and checkups. But I am such a fan of proton therapy that I come back regularly to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center to talk with other patients, caregivers and medical professionals.

I attend some of the center’s “Beam News” information sessions to share my experiences with proton therapy treatment with current patients and their families, and to explain its benefits and encourage others to ask their doctors if it’s an option for them. Because I’m healthier now than I was before I had lung cancer — and that’s after having had part of my right lung removed. I’ve run 20 half-marathons since 2007, and two full marathons since 2017.

Why I continue sharing my lung cancer story

I love hearing that my story gives hope to other cancer patients and their families.

Just the other day, I talked to a woman through myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one cancer support community. I started volunteering through that in early 2016, so I could be the person who’d already “been there” for other patients that I wish I’d had to talk to early on.

The woman and I discovered we actually had similar stories. At the end of our conversation, she told me she was so happy I’d called, because she felt much more confident in moving forward in her own battle. That was really gratifying.

When I was first approached about sharing my story, I was hesitant. I didn’t know how it would be received. It’s very odd to be a lifelong non-smoker who developed lung cancer, so I thought people wouldn’t be able to relate. I’m glad I took the chance anyway. My story is always so well-received by those who need to hear it.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.