PHILADELPHIA, PA (January 23, 2023)--Wednesday, January 18, 2023, I headed to the Roberts Proton Therapy Center at 3600 Civic Blvd., Philadelphia, for my last prostate cancer treatment. My wife, Connie, daughter, Connie Lynn Woods, and granddaughter, Brianna Woods, were with me. My entire family wanted to be there, but the hospital limits the number of support people you can bring with you.
Part of the celebration for people who complete this journey is ringing a large ceremonial bell that hangs in the corner of the waiting room on the bottom floor of that building. I was a little
apprehensive about ringing the bell, but what could possibly go wrong? I watched a five-year-old ring it during my time at the Center, and he had no problems. Of course, being a Cleary, you always prepare to expect the unexpected, so I was cautious. After being zapped by the Big Zapper for the last time, I got dressed and headed towards that corner for my big moment. My family gathered, and the patients and their family members in the room were looking toward the corner where I was standing. There was no noise as I swung the rope side to side to clang the clapper inside the bell. I tried again, but nothing. There must be a button to push, I thought. All eyes were on me; I swung the rope side to side again, but still no sound. I looked towards Kathy, the receptionist, and she is yelling, swing it front to back not sideways. Finally! Clang! Clang!, Clang! Laughter and applause from my family and the patients and staff broke the tension in the room as I rang that bell loud and precise several times.
How happy I am to have those 28 treatments over with. Several times I wanted to quit because of the side effects I was experiencing. Plus, there were nights when I couldn’t sleep as I realized I was facing a possible life-ending illness. My friend Bob Kotter died from prostate cancer while I was being treated. And I was still thinking about the hormone treatments they wanted me to take. One of the many side effects of those pills in males is enlarged breasts. Will I need a bra? And if so, what size?
Although the treatments are over, some of the radiation's side effects, such as tiredness, headaches, diarrhea, and nausea, have continued. The doctors said those symptoms may continue for some time, or they may stop all of a sudden.
In May 2022, the results of my routine PSA blood test increased by three points from 4 to 7.1. The PSA test is a blood test used primarily to screen for prostate cancer. The test measures the amount of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in your blood. PSA is a protein produced by both cancerous and noncancerous tissue in the prostate, a small gland that sits below the bladder in males.
In June, another PSA test was taken, which led to an MRI of the prostate in July and a prostate biopsy at the end of August. Both the MRI and the biopsy results confirmed that the tumor was cancerous. It was aggressive but localized to my prostate; in other words, it hadn't metastatic. That was the good news; the bad news was my cancer had a Gleason score of 8 and a Grade of 4. Referring to the Prostate Foundation graph below, my cancer would fall into the High/Very High category.
My Proton therapy treatment began on December 6, 2022. Proton therapy, also known as proton beam therapy, is a type of radiation therapy that uses high-energy protons (positively charged atoms) to damage the DNA in cancer cells. This type of cancer treatment is non-invasive, painless, and precise.
There are side effects from the radiation. Besides those mentioned, I also had chills, mouth and throat ulcers, and a rash on the trunk of my body. The GI problems were the worst. Some weeks it lasted for five days in a row.
Making this journey easier at Penn were some of the nicest police officers, doctors, nurses, proton therapy technicians, support staff, valet parking attendants, and office workers I have ever met in my lifetime.
Despite dealing with traffic backed up for blocks on some days, the valet parking attendants (some of them pictured above and below with me) always had a smile and a friendly greeting; daily, they went out of their way to help the other patients who used their services and me. On the last day of my treatments, the parking attendants presented me with the card below signed by them.
According to information on the center’s website, the Roberts Proton Therapy Center has five treatment rooms and a research room dedicated to proton therapy. It also has an additional five rooms for conventional (photon) radiation therapy. As the largest center in the world for both proton and conventional radiation, they treat more than 100 patients with proton therapy daily. It consists of 75,000 square feet. Besides prostate cancer, proton therapy is used for Lung cancer, GI tumors, Breast cancer, Brain tumors, and Sarcomas.
I had the privilege of meeting some fascinating people who were patients over the course of this period. There was a Russian naturalized citizen who was 73 years old. Before retirement, he was a teacher, and later, he ran a successful business in Delaware. The city of Wilmington claimed eminent domain to build some public projects, and he had to close his business. Later his wife got sick, and he has spent his retirement years caring for her. Most recently, his invalid brother moved into his house. Despite his cancer, he continues caring for his wife and brother.
There was a 25-year-old construction worker who was the sole provider for his 9-year-old daughter and his mother. He was diagnosed at another hospital with a brain tumor. When they operated on that tumor, the surgeons damaged the right side of his body. As a result, he could barely open his right eye and couldn’t move his right arm. The other hospital missed his cancer, and he was at Penn getting chemo treatments. Despite his health problems, the former karate student and his mother believed strongly in the Almighty God and believed too in taking one day at a time. In the future, he hopes to return to construction work, a job he truly loved. His mother showed me pictures of him before his illness. The photo showed a robust and handsome man with a broad smile holding his daughter, who was maybe three years old at the time.
A man in his 50s was treated for cancer at another Philadelphia hospital in 2017. The doctors told him that his cancer was cured. However, he kept telling them that he didn’t feel well and was spending most of his day in bed because of the blasé feelings he was experiencing. After several years he wasn’t feeling any better. He came to Penn for a second opinion, and they discovered he had bone and lung cancer.
There was a 40-year-old woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were both waiting for a CAT scan; we were the only two in the room. We both looked up from our phones, and I smile and said hello. She said breast cancer when I asked her what she was being treated for. She told me about her concerns for her young children as she was their sole provider. Her mother recently moved in with her to take care of her and the kids. “She is elderly; I am afraid she is taking on too much,” the young woman said. “I don’t know what will happen to my kids if cancer kills me.” I didn’t know what to say. Her situation was much more severe than mine. I listen and tried to offer her words of comfort.
This was my second experience with cancer. My first was in 2012-2013. At that time, the diagnosis was kidney cancer. However, a tumor biopsy was performed after cutting me open and was determined to be benign.
I am very happy that I am done with the radiation. I asked the doctor how will I know if the tumor is gone. “Let us worry about that; you go about living your life. Have a cheesesteak if you want. We will monitor your PSA test every three months, and that will tell us if we were successful.”
From the American Cancer Society website …
For most men with prostate cancer, treatment can remove or destroy cancer. Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. You may be relieved to finish treatment but find it hard not to worry about cancer growing or coming back. For other men, the cancer may come back in other parts of the body or may never go away completely. These men may get hormone treatment or other therapies to help keep the cancer under control for as long as possible. Learning to live with cancer that does not go away can be difficult and very stressful.
As you age in life, you can’t help but think every so often about death and how you will die. Based on my two experiences with cancer up until now, I don’t believe that disease will be my downfall. Nope, I picture myself tripping over a stone as I walk down the railroad tracks with my dog Peyton, hitting my head and lying unconscious as a train rolls over my body. Maybe that is a little extreme, but it has to be something that will get me a big headline in all the newspapers and television stations. I could go skydiving, and the parachute doesn’t open. Or, I could live to be 100 years old and die in my rocking chair.
Qué Será, Será
Looking back over my life, I should have been gone long ago. I fell on a fence spike as I climbed over old St. Marys' Cemetery's iron fence when I was seven, and it was embedded in my side a centimeter from my heart. My sister Dolores was walking by, and she remembered yelling, "Billy, what are you doing up there? Get down." I wished I had said, just hanging out, but I didn't. She lifted me off the fence, and I was rushed to the hospital. I was hospitalized with pneumonia as a youngster twice and in five auto accidents, four of which I was hit from behind while waiting for the red light to change. The first one was my fault. I was driving a friend's 1957 Ford with a supercharged 8-cylinder engine. I was stopped at the Monmouth Street and Broadway redlight. When the light changed, I popped the clutch and lost control of the car. I first hit the pedestrian traffic island, continued on breaking a sidewalk flag pole and finally stopped after breaking a 25-foot high iron gas station sign in half. If that sign weren't there, the car would have crashed into the homes on Somerset Street. I passed out after hitting the first object.
My other near-death experience was with the National Guard during the Newark riot in 1967, aka "The Battle of Newark." Six days of dodging bullets and bricks and bottles dropped from tall buildings. Lastly, I survived a kidney cancer scare in 2010. This leads me to believe that I still haven’t fulfilled the reason why God put me on this earth on October 18, 1944. You might want to circle that date to send me a birthday card. For now, I will enjoy this moment and continue to live my life to its fullest.