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Meet Our Survivors: Billy Walls

Billy Walls, Lung Cancer

Always active, Billy Walls served a full 20 years in the U.S. Army before transitioning to an electronics career in El Paso, Texas. Billy had been stationed at nearby Fort Bliss during part of his active duty tours, and had come to know and appreciate the mountain and desert life around the West Texas town.  

After excelling in his civilian career with—among others—Motorola, Billy was enjoying an active second retirement working with an international housing organization and building homes. One day in 2004 he experienced symptoms that concerned him.

“I had been working for Habitat for Humanity at the time of my diagnosis,” recalls Billy. “One morning I started coughing up blood.”

With a friends’ encouragement, Billy sought immediate medical attention. That’s when his physician confirmed he had lung cancer.

“My brother had cancer and was treated at MD Anderson in Houston,” Billy recalls. “I knew how well they treated him, so when my doctor said I had cancer too, I knew I wanted to go to MD Anderson.”

Following the initial diagnosis in 2004, Billy underwent surgery, chemotherapy and traditional radiation. After treatment in Houston, he returned to his home and family with some fatigue and minor mobility issues—but otherwise feeling great.

In September 2008, Billy began coughing up blood again—“just a streak” as he remembers. His next check-up showed no signs of cancer, but symptoms resurfaced and, in 2010, doctors confirmed the recurrence of Billy’s lung cancer. This led him back to MD Anderson where he became the first person in the world to receive innovative pencil beam proton therapy treatments for lung cancer.

Since Billy initially had been treated with traditional photon radiation, doctors were concerned about possible damage to the healthy tissue surrounding his lung should they re-expose it to radiation.

“My physician told me that receiving radiation twice for the same cancer is extremely rare—and that is when they told me about the option of pencil beam proton therapy.”

The MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center pioneered an innovative, extremely precise form of proton therapy known as pencil beam scanning, during which proton beams target a tumor with even greater precision resulting in increased tumor control while limiting side effects to surrounding tissues and organs from stray and exit-dose radiation. The bulk of the proton beam is focused tightly on the tumor – painting the tumor with different levels of radiation based on its depth – and surrounding tissue receives little radiation.

Doctors at MD Anderson told Billy that due to his previous levels of radiation exposure, pencil beam would be the best treatment option this time around.

Billy agreed, and in August 2010, he became the first lung cancer patient to receive pencil beam proton therapy. He received a total of 33 treatments between August and September, while also undergoing chemotherapy.

“It was imperative to target Billy’s tumor with the greatest amount of accuracy as possible because of his previous exposure to radiation,” said Billy’s physician, Joe Chang, MD, Ph.D. and associate professor of radiation oncology. “With the advancements we made with pencil beam technology, we were able to conform the treatment to the exact shape of and depth of Billy’s tumor and deliver the highest dose of radiation possible while limiting radiation exposure to parts of his lung that had previously received radiation.”

Before pencil beam proton therapy technology, Dr. Chang explained, reradiating Billy’s lung would not have been possible.

During his treatment, Billy never felt sick or experienced any side effects. Since finishing therapy in 2010, Billy, now 77 years old, has returned home to his wife and is enjoying his life.

“If I had to do it all over again,” Billy said, “I would choose pencil beam.”

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Since treating our first patient in May 2006, the dedicated team at the Proton Therapy Center has helped countless patients overcome cancer and get back to living their lives. Click here to read our patient survivor stories.

© 2016 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center