Note: This is the first in a monthly series of blogs that will be authored by Dr. Ben Wilkinson, radiation oncologist and medical director for Provision Center for Proton Therapy. Dr. Wilkinson will cover a variety of topics related to proton therapy treatment and cancer care.
For some years now, the damage conventional radiation can do to the hearts of breast cancer patients has been documented in the medical literature.
Now, we’re seeing the same effects in lung cancer patients.
Sarcoma represents just 1 percent of cancer cases. Bob Sisson is among the 1 percent.
“There isn’t a buddy check for sarcoma,” he says. “I don’t know how you give yourself any self-exams. It’s just bad luck.”
A cancer of the body’s connective tissue, there are approximately 14,000 cases of sarcoma diagnosed each year in the United States and represent approximately 15 percent of cancer found in children, according to the Sarcoma Alliance. About 11,300 of those cases soft tissue sarcoma, which can be found in muscles, fat, blood vessels, tendons and other tissues. Just 2,890 cases are bone sarcomas. Sisson was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma known as spindle cell last October.
“I started feeling a lump on my left hip—the left hip started getting a little larger than the right hip,” he says. That was last summer. By fall, he started to feel pain in his hip bone, and he visited his primary care physician who ordered a CT scan. There was a large tumor that had already metastasized into Sisson’s lungs.
“Maybe if I’d gone in 3 months sooner…,” he wonders.
Because the tumor was so close to key organs including the bowel and kidneys, he was not a candidate for surgery. He started chemotherapy at the recommendation of his oncologist in hopes of shrinking the tumors. But Sisson had also noticed the Provision ads on television featuring ice skating champion Scott Hamilton. He did some research about proton therapy and made a “cold call” to the Knoxville treatment center.
“I thought the proton therapy sounded good for me,” he says. “I have a background in nuclear engineering, so I’m not unfamiliar with the (concept)…. I talked to my doctor, and he said he didn’t think it would be a bad route.”
“They brought in a lot of their staff people to meet with us and talk with us,” he says. “It was so great to be able to have that interaction, that they would take the time to sit there and talk to you about this.”
Because protons deposit their energy at a specific target, there is less collateral damage to surrounding, healthy tissues and organs, making it a good treatment for many cancers, including sarcoma. Vern-Gross also advised on a shorter regimen of traditional radiation therapy, completed at Provision Radiation Therapy, for the smaller tumors in Sisson’s lungs.
The tumor on Sisson’s hip responded well to the treatment, drastically reducing the size of the sarcoma. He continues chemotherapy treatment for the lung nodules.
“The facility was just first-class. Just walking into the facility you think you’re in a clubhouse. It gives you a healthy perspective, a positive perspective,” Sisson says. “I would give (Provision) the highest marks on care. I would give it the highest marks on medical (expertise) because it’s state of the art. Dr. Tamara is great, absolutely fantastic. The world is a better place to have people like her.”
As for his cancer, Sisson says he has continued to stay active—caring for his wife who suffered from a stroke four years ago, driving himself to chemotherapy, keeping up the house and yard. While he knows the odds for beating stage 4 cancer aren’t in his favor, and although his Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance would not pay for the proton therapy treatments, he does not regret the investment.
“It resolved the issue that it was supposed to,” he says, referring to the tumor on his hip. “It’s your life you’re talking about.”
June is Men’s Health Awareness month—a time to remember that keeping tabs on your health can pay long-term dividends.
Cancer screenings can play an important role in health awareness, particularly for those at risk of certain types of cancer, because catching and treating cancer in its early stages improves the prognosis for remission and long-term survival.
For example, in lung cancer patients, those who have stage 1 cancer experience a 45-49 percent five-year survival rate—that is, 45-49 percent of patients are still alive five years following treatment. That compares to a 5-14 percent five-year survival rate for stage 3 and a 1 percent five-year survival rate for those with Stage 4 lung cancer. That’s according to statistics from National Cancer Institute.
Lung screenings are now covered by Medicare as well as state and private insurers for those at high risk for lung cancer. Medicare, for example, pays for the test for those between ages 55 and 77 who’ve smoked 30 pack-years—or the number of cigarettes smoked per day divided by 20 (1 pack has 20 cigarettes)—as well as those who currently smoke or quit smoking within the past 15 years.
Provision Diagnostic Imaging offers lung screenings, a low dose CT scan that would cost $300-$500 without health insurance reimbursement. Call (865) 684-2600 to schedule a lung screening.
Unlike lung cancer, prostate cancer has a much higher survivability rate—but it affects a much higher percentage of the population. Prostate cancer is the third most common cancer. In 2015, there will be an estimated 220,800 new cases diagnosed in the U.S., and approximately 14 percent of men will be diagnosed with prostate in their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.