For a man who has faced down hurricanes, cancer was just another storm to weather. So when retired Navy pilot Gerry McKim was diagnosed with oropharynx squamous cell carcinoma, he took it in stride.
“Death is an inevitability,” said Gerry. “When I was with the NOAA Corps (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration), I flew a P-3 into the eye of Hurricane Hugo. We were hit by a tornado, lost an engine and were trapped for two-and-a-half hours. At some point, you’re just lucky to be here.”
It may be luck, but Gerry is a man who nonetheless leaves little to chance. Self-reliant his entire life, he took an aggressively proactive role in getting the right treatment for the lump he discovered on his jaw in January 2011. His philosophy is, “If you don’t want me to step on your toes, move them.”
“I researched everything,” he said, fulfilling a promise he made to himself in 2005 after his wife died of ovarian cancer.
“I made up my mind that if I or anyone in my family got cancer again, I would do a lot of research before I did anything. My demeanor is, I go to the best place I can go. I’m very proactive until I get there. But once I get there, I put myself in their hands.”
His research led him to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center, where he began proton radiation treatments with his oncologist, Steven J. Frank, MD, Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology, on March 25.
The human papillomavirus, or HPV, was the cause of Gerry’s cancer. “Research has shown that nearly 50 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 70 in the US, Brazil and Mexico have HPV which can cause cancers of the head and neck – mostly in men” states Dr. Steven Frank.
Aimee R. Kreimer, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute, estimates that about 65 percent of the approximately 8,000 cancers of the tonsils and base of the tongue (oropharynx) seen in the U.S. in 2010 were from HPV infection; 80 percent of those cases were men.
After his initial consultation, it was determined that the best form of proton therapy for Gerry was intensity modulated proton therapy or IMPT. Gerry was the first oropharynx patient in the nation to receive IMPT and this form of proton therapy allows physicians at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center to deliver high doses of radiation directly to the tumor while sparing the healthy tissue near his tumor.
”Because proton therapy, and especially IMPT, can target a tumor site with pinpoint accuracy, we were able to both preserve Gerry’s ability to taste and to maintain proper functionality of his salivary glands” said Dr. Frank, who, with his colleagues at the Proton Therapy Center, is pioneering the use of IMPT for patients with the most challenging cases, such as Gerry’s.
“Additionally, Gerry did not experience significant pain or adverse side effects from his proton radiation treatment and we are extremely pleased with his progress post-treatment,” explained Dr. Frank. “And we are fortunate to be one of the only centers in the world to be able to offer this innovative treatment to our patients.”
Gerry’s treatment ended successfully on May 5. His immediate plans were to go out and live some more.
“I want to go to Antarctica. That’s the only place on earth I haven’t been. I want to take a boat ride through the roughest water on earth,” said Gerry, who doesn’t sound too worried about tempting fate another time.
His advice? “You always have to find humor and laughter in life. You have to have positive thoughts. Laugh and smile in your darkest days and surround yourself with good, joyous people. If not, you’ll go to the dark side, as Darth Vader would say. And I don’t want to live there.”