Dr. Walter Atkinson is not the sort of person who waits.
He doesn’t wait for someone to give him instructions. He doesn’t wait for someone to give him information. And it’s evident by all that he’s done and seen in his life that he doesn’t wait for someone else to show him a good time.
But when his urologist told Walter that he had prostate cancer and that he needed surgery immediately, Walter took a step back. And he waited.
“Being a health care professional myself, I just didn’t believe that I had to do anything ‘immediately,’” said Walter, a now-retired dentist.
For Walter, the more pressing matter was researching his other options, and he considered them carefully: Surgery, radiation seed implants, IMRT and cryo-therapy.
Considering the pros and cons of his options made Walter take yet another step back.
“I decided that I wouldn’t have any treatment at all,” he said. “All of the treatment options I considered killed cancer with similar success, but the side effects were pretty bad. I’d had a phenomenal life with more fun than any five people I know. I wasn’t willing to succumb to a life of urinary and bowel incompetence and I wasn’t all that interested in impotence either.”
Walter made his decision. He would research better options, and in the meantime, he would wait.
And then he came across a brief article in the local newspaper about the soon-to-open MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center. Walter began researching proton radiation as an option, and thought it was “almost too good to be true.”
“In all the consultations I had, not one soul told me about proton therapy,” he remembers. “As I continued to learn more about it, I just kept thinking that it couldn’t be true that so many people were being treated with proton radiation with success and not experiencing adverse side effects.”
Walter found out how true it was when he joined some of the first patients at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center, who were also being treated for prostate cancer. In addition to the proton treatment, Walter received hormone therapy, which slows cancer growth and, when paired with proton treatment, offers select patients a better prognosis.
“Hormone therapy was offered to me with an explanation as to why and the compelling evidence that supported it,” he said. “But as with everything else, it was my decision to make. I was in charge of my treatment. Not anyone else. That’s what I always told my patients: ‘You are in control of your treatment. You decide what you do. My job is to give you options and offer treatment choices, but you decide what’s best for you.’ I found self-empowerment was a very common thread among the guys who were going through proton therapy.”
Walter had hormone therapy two months before and two months after his eight-week proton therapy treatment. During that time, Walter and his wife, who both have their pilot licenses, flew daily from their hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to the proton therapy center in Houston. Walter, a dentist, never missed a treatment or a day of work in his practice.
“It was amazing to see Dr. Atkinson remain so active during his treatment at the Proton Therapy Center, -- and to see what he’s done since – but it’s not uncommon,” said Dr. Andrew Lee, associate professor of Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson. “We have found that a great many of our proton therapy patients experience very few side effects during and after treatment. As a prostate cancer specialist, it’s incredibly rewarding to treat someone for cancer and to see them to continue to thrive. That often doesn’t happen with other types of treatments – such as standard radiation – because the side effects can impact a patient’s daily life quite dramatically.”
Now retired, Walter enjoys most days with the Colorado mountains nearby. He looks back on his time at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center as nothing short of life-altering.
“Had I not happened upon the Proton Therapy Center, I probably would not have survived to this point,” he said. “I don’t think it was luck or divine intervention that led me to it, it was persistence on my part. I just wasn’t going to give up the search for other options. A lot of people would have just had the surgery.”
These days, Walter is a ski instructor in Vail, and he flies, sails, hikes and rides from one adventure to the next. With treatment more than four years behind him, and nothing but open road in front of him, there seems to be no limit to what Walter might take on next. But one thing’s for sure, he can hardly wait.