By Gwen Darling
Three years ago, with a little help from eHarmony, Jack and I met and fell in love. At our age (almost 50!), neither of us ever expected to find the kind of "soul mate" connection that we immediately shared, or in our wildest dreams imagined that we'd experience the sparks that appeared every time we were together -- like teenagers, but with the wisdom of age and appreciation. It was magic!
After three years of dating, we decided it was time to merge our households. With a considerable amount of give and take (I'll give you the biggest office if you take your collection of just plain weird artwork in there with you), we were thrilled to be starting this new chapter in our lives.
Never expected cancer
In the midst of all this chaos, Jack scheduled a relatively minor procedure with his urologist, who suggested throwing in a routine prostate biopsy, since both Jack's father and grandfather had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Neither of us gave it much thought. Jack is young, his PSA was 2.5, and he had no symptoms whatsoever that would indicate a problem. So he never expected the phone call that came on Monday, Oct. 11, 2010, and I certainly never expected to hear the words, "Babe, I've got cancer."
I really never understood what cancer survivors meant when they said everything changed the moment they received their diagnosis. Sure, their understanding of their health status changed, but I now understand that's only one small part of what truly becomes an overall paradigm shift.
After Jack's diagnosis, everything did change. Priorities became clear (he proposed -- finally!), and we threw ourselves into research mode, leaving no stone unturned in our quest for knowledge about the different treatment options available to us.
I say "us" rather than him because unlike many other types of cancer, prostate cancer truly does affect both members of the couple with many of the treatment options resulting in less than desirable permanent side effects such as impotence and incontinence.
Although curing Jack's cancer was our No. 1 priority, we were also committed to seeking options that would allow us to continue our passionate romance for at least another 50 years because, hey, we were just getting warmed up!
Never expected proton therapy
Although the use of proton radiation treatment for prostate cancer has been around for more than 20 years, many urologists are reluctant to recommend it. Through our research, which included reading every book and medical journal article we could find, interviewing multiple medical professionals including urologists and oncologists, and, finally, speaking with friends and friends of friends who had been diagnosed and treated, we learned, sadly, that the couples we spoke with who chose surgery had traded a cure for permanent and undesirable side effects. We did not want to go this route if Jack qualified for another option, and fortunately, he did.
Our exhaustive research is what led us to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center. Next to the unbelievable good fortune of finding each other, we feel it's the greatest stroke of luck in our lives to have ended up there for Jack's treatment. From his first day of treatment on Dec. 13, 2010, to the final day on Feb. 7, 2011, we knew we had made the right choice for us.
Although there is a closer proton therapy facility to our home in Tulsa, we chose MD Anderson because we felt confident that should any other complications arise, we would have access to the very best of the best across all disciplines. (Just a quick look at the credentials of Jack's physician, Dr. Choi, sealed the deal for us.)
Never expected a new family
Was it difficult (and expensive) to leave our businesses for 2 1/2 months? Definitely. Did we miss our family and friends over the holidays and the comforts of our new home together? More than you can imagine. Would we do it again in a heartbeat? ABSOLUTELY!
The doctors and staff at the Proton Therapy Center let us know at the onset that they truly cared about both of us. They backed it up with superior care, compassion and a level of personal connection that I am convinced is unique to the MD Anderson culture and experience.
In addition to the obvious benefits of receiving treatment at the most renowned cancer treatment center in the world, we also were surprised and delighted at the unexpected camaraderie and lasting friendships that develop among the proton patients and their significant others.
We will miss our Wednesday evening dinners and the support of our new friends, but are certain that our paths will cross again. Perhaps at our wedding on March 12, where we will celebrate our love, our new life together and most of all, Jack's health, thanks to the amazing science, facilities and staff at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center.
Read a newsletter written by Gwen's fiancé Jack during his treatment
Choosing the right treatment for prostate cancer
Is proton therapy right for you?
ProtonPals is a support and outreach group for those who choose proton therapy treatment at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Proton Therapy Center.