If anyone has checked the “adventure” box on the list of life choices, it’s Wally.
But Wally’s list of adventure choices did not include prostate cancer. Thankfully, his treatment choice – proton therapy – allowed him to maintain a very active lifestyle.
Proton therapy is a precise from of radiation treatment that avoids unnecessary radiation to nearby healthy tissue and vital organs. That precision helps lower the risk of side effects during and after treatment. And for Wally, that meant he could continue living his adventurous lifestyle – one that started early in life.
Signing up for Army flight school in anticipation of the draft in 1968, Wally 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. He has been stationed in Korea, Pakistan, and Germany, where he trained pilots to surveil the Czech/East German border during the Cold War. Wally also 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,” Wally noted. “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, Wally has been an avid triathlete and cyclist. A Saturday afternoon might find him and wife, Teresa, taking a 75-mile ride up the infamous “Tail of the Dragon” near his Tennessee home or a 100-mile ride up the Cherohala Skyway through the Smoky Mountains.
On top of all that, he also plays ice hockey and is part of a championship-caliber local team.
Even after the sun sets, Wally finds adventure. He’s an avid amateur astronomer and spends the night hours peering into the heavens.
Living such an active lifestyle and being the picture of health, Wally certainly didn’t think he had anything to worry about. His annual physicals showed a consistent, normal PSA level. However, six weeks after being prescribed testosterone for anemia, his PSA shot up 2.5 points. 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,” Wally wrote in a journal he kept during 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, Wally opted for active surveillance to monitor the cancer and see if it was growing. When follow-up testing confirmed it was, he contemplated surgery, got opinions at Johns Hopkins and MD Anderson, and explored other options, including traditional radiation and proton therapy.
“I think you need to arm yourself with as much information as you can,” Wally said. “I read the prostate cancer forums and other websites. I’ve read several books.”
In the end, Wally picked up the phone and called Provision.
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. 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 maintained his active lifestyle, fitting in a 46-mile bike ride one Saturday morning before treatment. In fact, he logged as many as 140 miles per week with a friend who was training for a 200-mile race. He also kept playing hockey at the local ice rink.
“It’s really kind of difficult to get your head around the whole situation,” Wally said. “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 did have some lighter moments.
“I ended up with a wonderful team of therapists,” Wally recalled. “We hollered and laughed and guffawed. I smuggled a bottle of wine and a card for one of the therapist’s birthdays.”
Ultimately, the encounter with a life-threatening illness did not keep him from seeking out adventure, but it did change the way he approaches it.
“It has made me more lucid about a lot of things,” Wally said, adding that he’s now planning new trips and making a mental list of future adventures.