Proton therapy an alternative to surgery
STERLING – Lon Van Gilder could have traveled the half mile to the local hospital, spent a day in surgery, and been done with treatment for prostate cancer.
But the 60-year-old Sterling man chose to drive almost 175 miles round trip to a clinic in Warrenville, spend a few minutes in treatment 5 days a week for 9 weeks, and avoid many of the side effects – including incontinence and erectile dysfunction – of more common treatments.
Van Gilder had not been to a doctor in almost 10 years, but his wife, concerned about his health ahead of snow-shoveling season, urged him to have a physical last November.
“I felt good,” he said. “I thought everything was fine.”
Lab tests revealed the PSA level in his blood was elevated. Prostate-specific antigen is a protein produced in the prostate that indicates prostate cancer or some other, noncancerous condition.
A biopsy of his prostate confirmed suspicions of cancer, and Van Gilder was diagnosed with prostate cancer in January.
“The urologist wanted me to have surgery to remove it [my prostate],” he said.
“He was talking about sex after the operation – Viagra and pumps – and my skin was just crawling,” he said. “My wife didn’t like the sound of all that, either. She was afraid my personality would change afterward – that I would get depressed.
“We wanted a second opinion.”
Joanne Van Gilder read about prostate cancer treatments online and learned about proton therapy and the CDH Proton Center, a ProCure Center, in the western suburbs of Chicago.
“I thought it was important to my husband and his well-being to see if there was something else out there,” she said. “I remembered watching the news and hearing something about it. I knew there were other options. I needed to see if there was something new, something less traumatic for him to go through.”
The couple met with an oncologist and discussed the treatment – how it works and what side effects it involves. They paid an obligatory visit to a surgeon, too.
Men diagnosed with prostate cancer have several standard treatment options: surgery, radiation (X-ray) therapy, and chemotherapy, among others, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
They also have a few newer options, including proton beam radiation therapy, according to the center.
Proton therapy and X-ray therapy both kill cancer cells by preventing them from dividing and growing, according to the CDH Proton Center website.
The difference between proton therapy and the more common radiation therapy is that protons can be controlled and directed right to the tumor, while X-ray radiation releases substantial doses of energy to healthy tissue and organs on the way to the tumor and continues to deliver radiation as it leaves the body, the website says.
Most treatments for prostate cancer often cause long-term side effects, including urinary complications and impotence. Proton therapy limits the radiation delivered to the body, reducing the risk of incontinence and erectile dysfunction, according to the proton center website.
Proton therapy is noninvasive and painless, according to the proton center website. Most patients receive treatments 5 days a week for about 8 weeks. Patients spend only about a minute receiving protons but spend about 30 minutes in a session because they must be positioned for the precise treatment, according to the proton center website.
The treatment also is covered by many insurance plans, as well as Medicare.
The CDH Proton Center in Warrenville has been open almost 2 years. ProCure currently operates two other centers, will open another next year ,and has plans for two others.
About a dozen proton therapy centers have popped up around the country in the last few years, although the technology has been around since the 1930s, with the invention of the cyclotron, and the first human was treated in 1954.
The Van Gilders were sold. A treatment with no pain, no recovery time, and little to no side effects? Check, check and check.
Lon Van Gilder drove back and forth between Sterling and Warrenville 5 days a week, leaving the house at 6 and returning by 11 a.m., from Feb. 20 to April 20. He put about 8,000 miles on his car. And he maintained a relatively normal lifestyle.
“It [the treatment] wasn’t hard on me at all,” he said. “The only thing that made me tired was driving back and forth.
“I just looked at it as a part-time job for 2 months.”
Van Gilder believes he made the best decision. Recent lab tests revealed the PSA level in his blood had dropped, from 10.5 to 5.5. Minor urinary issues linger, too, but were expected. His life is pretty much exactly as it was before his cancer diagnosis.
“It [the treatment] costs 30 to 40 percent more than surgery, but it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s a quality of life thing – both during the treatment and after.
“It’s only money ... The living – that was the most important thing.”