Proton therapy helped me survive cancer twice
June 16, 2020
Proton therapy helped me overcome squamous cell carcinoma twice
BY Marc O'Connor
I discovered I had cancer in July 2018, after going to my doctor about a bump on my neck. I had no cold-like symptoms, so my doctor referred me to an ear, nose and throat specialist for a biopsy.
I knew something was wrong when the ENT asked to see me on a Saturday. My doctor told me that I had a head and neck cancer called squamous cell carcinoma caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
It was hard to process the words “You have cancer!” I’m an active father of two teenagers and the owner of a large healthcare company.
My wife and I started planning next steps. I called two friends who had previously received the same diagnosis. “Get to MD Anderson immediately!” was their immediate response.
My first visit to MD Anderson
Within 48 hours of calling MD Anderson, I had my first appointment scheduled and was making plans to travel to Houston from my home in Atlanta, Georgia.
During my first visit, I met with medical oncologist Dr. Maura Gillison and radiation oncologist Dr. Steven Frank. They said I would only need proton therapy. This was a relief; my ENT had originally suggested surgery.
The benefit of proton therapy is that it treats the cancer while minimizing radiation exposure to the rest of your body. Since healthy tissues aren’t as affected, it typically has fewer side effects than traditional radiation therapy.
Managing swallowing function and other proton therapy side effects
I began my treatment in August 2018. Having advice from others who had experienced the same treatment really helped me manage my side effects.
Oral mucositis was the worst of my side effects. It can cause patients to have trouble eating, Thankfully, I didn’t notice much change in my abilities to swallow or move my neck because I used the mouthwash prescribed by my care team and did the recommended stretching and swallowing exercises. I made a point to eat normally, too, no matter how bad I felt.
The therapists and staff have a way of keeping their patients motivated, which made my daily proton therapy treatments much better. After 32 treatments, I returned home to Atlanta in October 2018.
My second cancer diagnosis and proton therapy benefits
While I was traveling home after my first post-treatment PET scan in January 2019, Dr. Frank called with news of a second cancer diagnosis. I had the same type cancer, but this time it was on the other side of my neck.
“One of the advantages of your situation is that you received proton therapy treatment in your first diagnosis,” Dr. Frank told me.
Because the other side of my neck hadn’t had prior exposure to radiation from the first treatment, Dr. Frank and his team were able to treat that area with high doses of proton therapy without harming the healthy tissues in my mouth or brain. As a result, proton therapy preserved my ability to swallow and taste.
Returning to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center for another 33 treatments seemed different this time. I was less nervous going through radiation because I knew what to expect and how to prepare for any side effects that might return. I also made it my goal to commit to as much physical activity as possible. This helped me maintain a positive attitude.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was taking place at the time. On 19 out of the 22 days I was in town, I attended the rodeo after my daily proton therapy treatment. The rodeo was fun to watch and served as a fantastic distraction.
Life after proton therapy
I’ve now completed my second clean PET scan post-treatment and remain cancer-free. You would never know that I’ve had 65 rounds of proton therapy from looking at me. And that’s a good thing!
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
You would never know that I’ve had 65 rounds of proton therapy from looking at me.