The first time James walked through the doors at Provision CARES Proton Therapy, he knew he’d made the right decision. He hadn’t even spoken with a physician yet or stepped foot into a treatment room. He hadn’t even gotten the proton therapy brochure that he’d come to pick up in the first place.
On Day 1, as he stood in the lobby waiting for that brochure – an aggressive prostate cancer diagnosis looming large on his mind – a man approached him. As is often the case in the Provision lobby, the two strangers got to talking. They talked about cancer. They talked about proton therapy. They talked about the weekly lunch and learns at Provision. And the sandwiches. Oh, James remembers the sandwiches!
But above all, one thing stood out to James during that conversation. The man said five memorable words that proved to James he was exactly where he needed to be:
“This place saved my life.”
THE FIRST WARNING SIGN
In 2014, James first learned he was at risk for prostate cancer. The popular street musician known for tooting his saxophone on downtown Knoxville’s Market Square started noticing some changes in his body that prompted him to visit his primary care doctor.
“I was getting up at night using the bathroom several times,” James recalls. “I’m not a drinker. I’m not a smoker. I said, ‘Dang. What the heck is going on?’”
After running a few tests, including a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, he was told his PSA levels were slightly higher than normal. Elevated PSA levels can be an indication that something’s not quite right within a man’s prostate.
James’ doctor recommended he start taking supplements to help alleviate his urinary symptoms. He was also scheduled to undergo a Digital Rectal Exam (DRE) and prostate biopsy. During the DRE his doctor would physically examine the prostate for any noticeable abnormalities. Depending on the results of that exam, they might proceed to a biopsy, where samples of prostate tissue are tested for the presence of cancer.
Thankfully, the results of the DRE came back normal. In addition, after a re-check of his PSA levels a week later, he was told those had returned to normal as well.
James says they canceled his biopsy and told him he was good to go. He felt great relief after getting the “all clear.” But in hindsight, he now realizes it was a false sense of security.
“Little did I know that cancer doesn’t sleep.”
BECOMING HIS OWN HEALTH ADVOCATE
Over the next several years, James continued with routine PSA screenings to make sure things were staying put. Unfortunately, they weren’t.
In 2020, his PSA levels started creeping back up. James says his doctor at the time wanted to continue monitoring the situation and run another test in a few months.
James recalls just having a gut feeling that waiting this one out wasn’t the right move.
“I knew some stuff was going on. I knew something wasn’t right,” he says. “When somebody tells you to delay stuff, you’ve got to do your homework. Get a second opinion.”
After his first scare six years earlier, he’d started doing his own research on prostate cancer. Based on what he’d read, he felt like a DRE wasn’t enough this time. He became his own health advocate and pushed for the next phase of screening, in which ultrasound or MRI images are used to detect abnormalities in the prostate gland.
THE NEWS NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR
James says there was some initial resistance to his request for imaging, but eventually, he went to the hospital for an MRI. And it’s a good thing he did.
“I could just tell looking at the scans that there was something going on.”
His instincts were right.
Those scans told doctors they needed to do a biopsy. And when the biopsy results came back, they confirmed what James had feared – he had prostate cancer.
“It was devastating because you see so many people die of cancer,” James says.
And the news got worse.
“My doctor said, ‘You’ve got an aggressive form of cancer. You’ve got to take care of this stuff quick.’”
It turned out James’ prostate cancer had a Gleason Score of 10. The Gleason Score is a measure of how aggressive the cancer cells are and how likely they are to spread. The lower the number, the better – and James had the highest score possible.
He remembers thinking, “I don’t know how much time I have left.”
CHOOSING THE RIGHT TREATMENT
Prostate cancer patients can choose from several treatment options. One of the most common treatments is a prostatectomy, where the prostate gland is surgically removed.
Another popular treatment option uses radiation to destroy cancer cells. It can be delivered in several different ways, including traditional x-ray radiation (IMRT), seed implants (brachytherapy), and proton therapy.
James says his doctor immediately recommended surgery. However, he wanted to do his own research before making a treatment decision. Luckily, ever since his initial scare in 2014, he’d been scouring the internet and reading any medical books he could find. He even reached out to a couple of friends who also had prostate cancer.
“I talked to one friend who had a prostatectomy, who said the cancer spread on him after he had the surgery,” he recalls.
After hearing others’ stories and reading about the risks and side effects of each treatment option, James says he was drawn to proton therapy.
He kept thinking about his friend who said the surgery didn’t get all the cancer cells, allowing them to later spread. Since James’ cancer was so aggressive, making sure he got it all out was his biggest concern.
He felt proton therapy gave him the best chance to do that. The way he saw it, it was like cooking.
“If I burn stuff on the grill, it’s done with. If I boil an egg, it’s done with. So, I’m going with proton therapy.”
A ‘BEAUTIFUL’ CANCER TREATMENT
That first day at the proton center, when James met the man who told him Provision saved his life, was just the beginning of what James calls a “beautiful experience.”
Think about that.
A man who first came to Provision CARES Proton Therapy facing a highly aggressive cancer and fearing for his life, now looks back at his time there as “beautiful.”
“It was just a professional, beautiful experience under the circumstances I was going through.”
James met with Dr. Allen Meek, one of Provision’s board-certified radiation oncologists, who helped devise a plan to treat the prostate cancer. Because it was so aggressive, he would first undergo hormone therapy to help shrink the cancer cells down a bit. Then, James would go through 39 proton therapy treatments, one per weekday for about two months.
He says proton therapy made his wish of finding a treatment with minimal side effects come true. “Throughout all 39 treatments, it was beautiful. I went home and mowed the grass and did whatever I wanted to do.”
By the time his treatment was over, he was still able to keep up with his everyday activities – including treating the crowds down on Market Square to some great jazz music!
“I was blowing my sax on that 39th day and feeling good! I went home, ate a good meal, and enjoyed what I was doing.”
Now, after his most recent follow-up, his PSA level was just 0.19. Or as James put it, “Almost undetectable.”
EXPERIENCING THE CULTURE OF CARE
It wasn’t just the quality of treatment that made his time at Provision so memorable. James says the people there made all the difference.
That includes the man he met on Day 1 – who James later learned is someone Provision calls a Proton Ambassador. The two are now friends and still keep in touch even today.
“It was just a God-send because while I was going through proton therapy, I had somebody personal to call.”
His experience meeting Ambassadors when he first came to the center also allowed him to form a comradery with other new patients throughout his treatment.
Provision has long prided itself on its welcoming lobby, where patients can gather around the fireplace with a hot cup of coffee while waiting for treatment. It’s one of the staples of the Culture of Care. However, due to COVID-19 safety precautions, during James’ time in treatment, patients were waiting in their cars.
Of course, being a social butterfly, James wasn’t going to let that deter him from making some new friends! He would roam around the parking lot, making his way from car to car to chat with other patients.
He remembers meeting someone who was there for his initial consult, telling him, “If you don’t do anything else, go with these people. I don’t know what kind of stage you’re in or what kind of numbers you have, but if you can, go with these people.”
THE BIGGEST LESSON
When asked why James wanted to share his story with others, he says it’s because he wants people to feel empowered to be their own health advocate – and take action.
“I think I was the worst-case scenario,” he says. “But it’s coming out pretty dang good thanks to the man upstairs. Somebody up there was telling me something, and I listened. I started to take some action. You’ve got to take some action.”
He stresses the importance of doing your research, knowing all your treatment options, and getting a second opinion. Take it from a guy who’s now 70 years old and feeling better than he has in years – go with your gut.
“It’s like going to a car lot. Everybody thinks they have the best car. But no matter what somebody tells you, you’ve got to make a decision. My life was at stake, so I made the decision that I’m going with proton therapy. And so far, I probably can outrun any 70-year-old man that I see!”
As part of the Provision CARES Cancer Network, Provision CARES Proton Therapy has locations in Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn. If you or someone you know has cancer, we encourage you to call 1-833-6-PROTON. One of our Cancer Care Experts can speak to you about your specific diagnosis and help determine if proton therapy is right for you.