If anyone has checked the “adventure” box on the list of life choices it’s Walter Knight.
But Walt’s list of adventure choices did not include prostate cancer.
He certainly didn’t think he had anything to worry about. His annual physicals showed a consistent, normal PSA, and he was obviously healthy. But, six weeks after being prescribed testosterone for anemia, Walt’s PSA shot up two-and-a-half points, and follow-up biopsies revealed the growing presence of cancer.
“There are unending volumes in thousands of books that attempt to describe the kaleidoscope of feelings and emotions that follow a diagnosis of METASTATIC CANCER,” Walt wrote in a journal he kept of his journey called the “Proton Chronicles.” “I’m sure that like many, I attempted to rationalize or even justify the situation, but when faced with real mortality, not death in a remote jungle, barren desert or in the face of a swerving 18-wheeler, but real mortality, constant, relentless and unwavering and most importantly to your mind, untimely mortality, your life and that of your family is forever altered.”
First, he opted for “active surveillance” to see if the cancer would grow. When follow-up testing confirmed this, he contemplated surgery, got opinions at Johns Hopkins and MD Andersen and explored other options including conventional radiation and proton therapy.
“I think you need to arm yourself with as much information as you can,” Walt says. “I read the prostate cancer forums and other websites. I’ve read several books.
In the end, “I picked up the phone and called Provision,” he says.
With proton therapy, a high dose of radiation can be delivered directly to the tumor, while sparing much of the adjacent bladder and rectum from unnecessary radiation. Studies have shown that treatment with proton therapy results in excellent rates of cancer control with very low rates of serious bowel or bladder complications.
Walt opted for 20 hypofractionated treatments, in which a higher dose of proton radiation is given in half as many treatments, and after the initial imaging, prepping and getting acclimated to the voluminous amount of drinking water required before the procedure, it was off to the races.
During treatment, he kept biking—fitting in a 46-mile jaunt before one Saturday morning treatment, logging as many as 140 miles per week with a friend who was training for a 200-mile race—and playing hockey at the local rink.
“It’s really kind of difficult to get your head around the whole situation,” Walt says. “This is an intangible demon living inside of me and you’re assaulting it with this stuff of science fiction. This is happening at the cellular level and it’s absolutely painless.”
While not exactly a party, the treatment time had its lighter moments.
“I ended up with a wonderful team of therapists,” he says. “We hollered and laughed and guffawed. I smuggled a bottle of wine and card for one of the therapists’ birthdays.”
Signing up for Army flight school in anticipation of the draft in 1968, he served in Vietnam as a Cobra pilot, flying 1,039 hours of combat and receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross along with 29 Air Medals and a Bronze Star. He continued his military career as a pilot and pilot instructor who’s been stationed in Korea, Pakistan and Germany, where he trained pilots to surveil the Czech/East German border during the Cold War and served as a pilot transporting the commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in Europe throughout Europe and the Middle East as well as flying VIPs along the Berlin corridor.
“You had to be specially cleared,” Walt says. “It was a great experience to be involved in the Cold War.”
Following his military service, he spent 20 years flying jets throughout North America and the Carribean for the freight airline Airborne Express, now ABX Air, where he retired as a training captain in 2007.
Throughout his career and into retirement, Walt has been an avid triathlete and road and mountain biker. A Saturday afternoon might find he and wife, Teresa, taking a 75-mile ride up the infamous “Dragon’s Tail” road near his Tennessee home or a 100-mile ride up the Cherohala Skyway through the Smoky Mountains.
Oh yeah, he plays ice hockey too—his local team recently winning the league title. And, as an avid amateur astronomer, he spends night hours peering into the heavens.
Still, the encounter with a life-threatening illness has not left him unchanged. He’s been planning trips, making a mental list of future adventures.
“It has made me more lucid about a lot of things,” he says.