Diagnosed with stage II prostate cancer in 2008
Interviewed close to 100 prostate cancer patients to hear the pros and cons of different treatment approaches
Treated with proton therapy with virtually no side effects
Volunteers his time to share his positive experiences with proton therapy
Richard Wright will turn 70 this year but it’s difficult to imagine him ever slowing down. After retiring from 32 years in the Coast Guard in 1993, he took up a new career in oil spill response. He has run his own consulting company advising on responses to oil spills since 2009—which is one year after he was first diagnosed with prostate cancer.
When he got this diagnosis in early 2008, he already had a palpable tumor. His biopsy revealed a Gleason score of seven. “Being diagnosed with a serious illness can be staggering. Those first couple of days are very, very dark,” Richard says. “I’ve had other medical conditions; I had polio as a teenager and I’ve had five angioplasties and I’ve got eight stents and none of it was as staggering as you’ve got cancer.”
A fortunate man
Richard considers himself a fortunate man. He’s proud of his family; he’s had many opportunities to captain his own ship—and he’s faced down more than one terrible illness. When he was diagnosed with polio at the age of 13, “it was at the very end of the polio epidemic period. It was paralytic polio and in years past they would take patients like me and just slap them in braces.” Thanks to the pioneering work of Australian nurse Sister Kenny, Richard was treated with heat and passive exercise “and I came back from it. If I had gotten it five years earlier I would have been crippled for life.”
There’s a parallel here with his choice of treatment for prostate cancer—proton therapy
. Getting the right, next-generation treatment, Richard believes, has made all the difference. He relishes his good health; the biggest hassle for him post-treatment with proton therapy, he says, is an occasional check on his PSA. “Proton therapy is such an elegant treatment modality. The science and the engineering behind this type of radiation therapy are absolutely staggering. The precision of protons just blows me away.”
Investigating cancer treatment approaches
When he was first diagnosed, Richard says he considered watchful waiting for a short period of time, “but the cancer was well into stage II. I could not live with that. I had to seek out treatment.” His urologist at Virginia Mason in Seattle, Dr. Christopher Porter, “was very good about encouraging me to stretch in looking at the different modalities.” These included surgery, standard radiation therapy, brachytherapy, and proton therapy. Richard read a number of books about prostate cancer treatment approaches. All told, he says he read about 10,000 pages.
Early on, though, he decided that the best way to truly understand the various treatments and their outcomes and impacts was to interview men who had undergone these treatments themselves. He got some initial names of men to contact from Dr. Porter, “and then I branched out from there,” says Richard.
“Along the way, as I learned more about protons, I got hold of Bob Marckini’s book You Can Beat Prostate Cancer
then I started calling proton patients.” Bob Marckini was successfully treated with proton therapy for prostate cancer more than a decade ago; the organization he helped found, the Brotherhood of the Balloon
, serves as a public forum and resource for men who have undergone treatment for prostate cancer with proton therapy—and men who are considering this treatment.
Richard is a man who doesn’t do things by half-measures. He’s a self-described rugby “fanatic” who destroyed one of his knees playing the game—and then took up coaching and refereeing. His favorite posting with the Coast Guard was a two-year stint serving as Commanding Officer of a Coast Guard High Endurance Cutter homeported in Port Angeles, WA. His ship did mostly Bering Sea patrols. “Then shore side,” he recounts, “I did law enforcement and intelligence work and finished up as the Intelligence Director for the U.S. Department of Transportation.”
Richard laughs when he describes how his past work in intelligence served him well as a cancer patient. He interviewed nearly 100 prostate cancer survivors to hear candid answers about their treatment experiences. “After no more than 10 or so interviews, I ruled out standard radiation. The initial side effects of the men I spoke with were miniscule, but their downstream side effects just got worse and worse as time went by.” After the first 50 interviews, he says, “it came down to protons or surgery.”
“The difference was stunning”
“When I started calling proton therapy patients, the difference was stunning,” says Richard. “It showed in their attitude, in what I heard from these men when I really drilled down on their answers. Initially everyone’s going to say, ‘Sure, I’m happy with what I did, I’d do it again,’—it’s human nature. So you have to craft questions to get them to be more forthcoming about possible side effects like impotence and incontinence. And everyone I talked to from the proton side of the coin—who are just like I am now—were highly positive about their treatment. I talked to people who had proton therapy 10 years before, who still had no side effects whatsoever, no complications.”
In Richard’s pool of contacts, this was not the case with other treatment approaches. Somewhere between the 50th and 75th interview, he says, “when I was starting to focus in on protons, my attitude changed from ‘Which shall I do?’ to ‘Is there a reason I shouldn’t do this?’ And the only real reason—and now we don’t have to worry about that for at least the folks around here—the only big reason was I had to go away to do this.”
Treatment at Loma Linda
At that time, SCCA Proton Therapy, A Procure Center
was in the early planning stages. The proton therapy facility that was closest to Richard’s home in West Seattle was Loma Linda University Medical Center in Southern California. And importantly, for Richard, “to a person, those I interviewed who were treated at Loma Linda were also extremely high on the entire Loma Linda program.” Richard travelled to Loma Linda to see the facility and interview patients and doctors there; he and wife Cara were convinced that it was the right choice.
“Fortunately, the president of the company I was working for at the time was very understanding about this. The treatment itself is so benign that I was able to work pretty much full time while I was down there.”
From Richard’s perspective, a person going through proton therapy has two choices: “The first is ‘I’m going to get through this. I’ve got lots of books and I can watch television and I can lounge by the pool.’ Those people tend to feel the treatment a lot more, they get much more fatigue, and it’s much more wearing on them.
“Other folks, and I was among them, stay very physically active during the course of treatment. I was at the gym virtually every day for a couple of hours and I’d leave the gym and I’d go swimming. The people that remain physically active tend to breeze through the treatment without any problems. It’s counter-intuitive that if you work harder you’ll be less tired, but it’s true. I experienced no trouble at all. In fact, one of the possible side effects is some urinary urgency, especially during the latter parts of proton treatment. I never had that. I can’t emphasize too strongly how important it is to stay active during treatment.”
Sharing his experiences with proton therapy
Today, Richard continues to approach life with enthusiasm and high energy. One of his and Cara’s greatest passions is scuba diving. They took this up together in 1990; every vacation they’ve taken since that time has been to a warm-water destination. They’ve dived in numerous countries, from Belize to Honduras to Curacao, but their favorite spot to dive is the Bloody Bay Wall in Little Cayman. “The diving is stunning, it is just wonderful,” he says. “The water’s warm and the sea life is beautiful.”
Since he was treated with proton therapy, he’s continued to volunteer on a phone contact list for The Brotherhood of the Balloon, talking to men from all over the country who are diagnosed with prostate cancer. These men are looking for answers like he was, and want to hear about his experiences. Those who speak with Richard hear the story of how his tenacious research paid off.
When he shares his story with other cancer patients and their families, he says he tells them: “You have to make this decision; nobody’s going to make it for you. I can tell you what I’ve done: This treatment changed my life.
“Men diagnosed with prostate cancer need to realize that there’s support available and that there are options—and not just ‘options’ but good options,” Richard concludes. “Proton therapy won’t even slow you down if you don’t let it.”