Firefighters Khalid Failakawi (left) and Ahmed Fakhri (right) might have met conquering some of Kuwait’s most dangerous oil fires over the past 20 years. Instead, it took their battles with prostate cancer for these native Kuwaiti and Texan men to meet – 8,000 miles from the Middle East at The University of Texas MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center.
A company logo was the conversation starter – turned out the two fought fires simultaneously but like ships passing in the night, never met while working for seven months to cap the notorious 1991 Gulf War oil well fires.
Khalid, a 61-year-old Kuwaiti citizen began his 32-year firefighting career right out of high school, rising to become a fire chief and training officer for a Kuwaiti oil company. Ahmed, a 60-year-old, Arabic-speaking native Texan, switched careers midlife and began working with a company specializing in fighting oil fires from inland Texas to offshore India, Egypt and Kuwait.
With a diagnosis of prostate cancer, the men also found their way to MD Anderson’s Proton Therapy Center. An advanced form of radiation that targets tumors precisely while minimizing damage to healthy surrounding tissue, research shows proton therapy can reduce some of the side effects of traditional radiation that impair quality of life. Established in 2006, the Proton Therapy Center has successfully treated over 1,000 prostate cancer patients.
Khalid sought treatment at MD Anderson after hearing about a coworker’s mother who was successfully treated there. Accompanied by his 29-year old son, he made the long journey to meet with Usama Mahmood, M.D. and assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology.
“As a fireman, I always focus on safety options. I chose proton therapy because I believed it was safer than the other therapies available for my cancer treatment” says Khalid.
Ahmed, diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004 and enrolled in a surveillance program at MD Anderson, consulted his treatment options when doctors determined his cancer was growing this past fall. With Seungtaek Choi, M.D. and assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology, Ahmed was most concerned about the side effects of cancer treatment.
“Quality of life was a huge factor for me. Considering that my options were surgical removal or conventional radiation therapy, proton treatment was the only way to go,” says Ahmed.
Khalid has returned home to Kuwait since completing proton treatment and Ahmed returned home to Conroe, Texas when his treatment concluded, about a month after Khalid’s. Both men are now cancer free, and will return to MD Anderson for follow up appointments with their radiation oncologists. They miss their cherished daily meetings in between treatments and plan to keep up a long-distance friendship with the hope of meeting again in person someday.
“Kuwaiti culture is all about family,” says Ahmed. “The two of us formed an unexpected home away from home during our treatments complete with shared experiences, support and a lot of laughs. It made a trying time in our lives bearable and most memorable.”