Stories of prostate cancer survivors built credible expectations for proton treatments

Alton Whitley is an analytical guy. Numbers — data — drove Whitley’s decisions during his whole career as a fighter pilot with the U.S. Air Force.

But when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 2013, data didn’t drive the retired colonel’s decision about which treatment would be best. The stories of cancer survivors did. “I was raised in a family where you were expected to make decisions and they had to be the right decisions,” Whitley said. “So, I read the scientific data. I read the journal articles. You get into the tables and you look at [treatment] modalities and ages and specific circumstances and what your chance of success is. And all that is well and good.

“But I found the testimonials of prostate cancer survivors to have the most impact on my thought process.”

Data show radical prostate surgery to be one of several viable treatment options for some men, Whitley noted. “But I have yet to read a testimonial from a patient who chose radical prostatectomy that said, ‘I’m glad I did that and here’s why.’ “But I found lots of testimonials by men who did protons,” continued Whitley. “I read Bob Marckini’s book. That lit my fire. I read Harold Dawley’s book. And I read a book about a gentleman from South America who went to Seoul for treatment.”

Whether online or in print, the published recollections of prostate cancer patients shone a bright light on the whole prostate cancer experience, no matter what the therapywas , he said, from treatment preparations to side effects suffered during weeks of treatment, and months or years later. “I read the same things that Alton did,” added Ann, his spouse. “So, I was able to compare the treatments, too.”

From the get-go, surgery was not an attractive option for Whitley. Over the years, he had lost some dear family members to postsurgical infections and other complications, he said. “So, I had a mental block about surgery,” said Whitley. “And I didn’t really like the potential side effects of prostate surgery. I was really looking for a noninvasive treatment.” Of all the nonsurgical options, proton beam therapy made the most sense to Whitley. Having flown many combat missions, he recognized the importance of hitting the target, while doing little damage to the surrounding area.

And the real-world testimonials from proton patients provided him with the reassurance and confidence to choose proton therapy. Harold Dawley’s book has a chapter devoted to the first proton treatment,” recalled Whitley. “It’s a chapter I read numerous times.” So, when the time came and he was waiting in his gown for his first round of proton therapy at MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center in Houston, Texas, Whitley felt he already knew the drill.

Whitley completed his proton treatments in early November 2013. “Am I cancer-free?” he asked aloud. “We won’t know that for a long time. I go back to Houston in February for a reassessment. But I am living the same active lifestyle I was living before I was diagnosed.”