- Diagnosed with prostate cancer in August 2011.
- Considered treatment options from radical prostatectomy to watchful waiting.
- Finished proton therapy in December 2011. Completed first Iron Man six months later.
When he found out he had prostate cancer, Pat Purcell resolved to find the right treatment option for his way of life. Ultimately, Pat’s choice was proton therapy.
A high-achieving, high-energy sales executive whose passions include triathlons and bass fishing, Pat was 50 years old when he was diagnosed in August 2011. “Guys like me think—I’ve got another 50 years here on the earth and I want to make sure I know what’s going on,” he says. “With my wife Sharon, we committed to learn everything we could to make an informed decision and not wait too long to do it.”
A routine check-up had uncovered a rising PSA; Pat’s follow-on biopsy revealed a Gleason Score of 6. “That’s basically a non-aggressive Gleason Score,” he says. The good news was that his cancer was in the early stages and still contained within his prostate. The unanswered question was where to go from there. Pat says his doctor encouraged him to investigate a number of different treatment options. “He said, ‘There’s really not just one answer that I can give you.’ Instead, he recommended several different physicians to talk to.”
Pat’s triathlon: Diagnosis, discovery, treatment
Pat likens his prostate cancer journey to participating in a triathlon made up of three demanding pursuits, each challenging in its own right: diagnosis, discovery, and treatment. “The first step, the diagnosis step, was excruciating. You’re told you have cancer and there’s a whole cycle of fear, uncertainty, doubt—What am I going to do next? ” he says.
“Then you get to that next stage, which is research and discovery.”
The first oncologist Pat and Sharon met with was a surgeon who told Pat he was a great candidate for a radical prostatectomy. Pat says that after researching this procedure, he was concerned about the long-term impact of living without a prostate, particularly the potential it posed for impotence and incontinence. “It just did not look good for my quality of life for the next 30 or 40 years.”
Pat and Sharon consulted with other oncologists and investigated a number of different treatment approaches, including: brachytherapy, which involves the placement of radioactive cancer-killing seeds in the prostate; conventional IMRT (intensity- modulated radiation therapy); and cryotherapy, a process that freezes tissues within the prostate. With each treatment choice, the related side effects remained a concern for him.
“Throughout this whole discussion,” Pat says, “the lingering question was, do I really need to do anything? What if I just wait and monitor this—wait and see? I considered that; in fact I asked that of every physician we met with.” Pat decided that a watchful waiting approach was too great a risk, since it could result in the spread of his cancer.
Choosing proton therapy
By chance, while still in search of an answer, Pat learned about proton therapy treatment for prostate cancer. At the time of his diagnosis, the Proton Therapy Center at SCCA was still a year and a half away from completion. To pursue proton therapy, patients needed to travel outside the Pacific Northwest. “We hadn’t yet told anyone that I had this diagnosis. But when Sharon told her friend Kirsten what we were going through, Kirsten told her, ‘Don’t let Pat do anything until he talks to my dad.’”
Kirsten’s father, Richard Wright, is a prostate cancer survivor who had been treated with proton therapy at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Southern California. Pat and Sharon met with Richard, “and when he shared his experiences—as well as his exploration and due diligence prior to choosing this treatment—I was convinced that it was the best thing for me, too,” says Pat. Richard, a former Coast Guard intelligence officer, told Pat he had interviewed 100 prostate cancer survivors before choosing proton therapy.
“Sharon and I prayed about it, and then we had a web conference call with my whole family, most of whom are in the Midwest,” Pat recalls. “I explained what was going on, the research we had done, and I told them: ‘In all probability I’m going to be going down to California for nine weeks to get this taken care of. I’m optimistic that when I get back I will be back at 100 percent, I won’t have lingering long-term side effects and I’ll be doing the things I did before I left.’”
And that’s exactly what happened.
Surviving cancer—and completing his first Ironman 70.3
Beginning in early October 2011, Pat embarked on the third leg of his cancer triathlon, undergoing proton therapy at Loma Linda University Medical Center five days a week for nine weeks.
Pat was determined to stay with his normal life routine. He reports experiencing minimal side effects. “I actually worked full time while I was down there. I set up a web conference protocol where I’d meet with my team every morning by web cam and I’d have my regular one-on-one meetings as well. The radiation takes a little bit out of you, and you don’t feel the same energy level that you normally would.” Nonetheless, Pat ran every morning and also biked, swam at the local health center, and lifted weights. “They encouraged me to work out daily,” he says.
In fact, during his course of treatment, he competed in the Fearless Triathlon in San Diego. “It was after my 14th treatment. This was a sprint distance—a salt-water swim, the bike ride was in a closed course, and the run was relatively short. So you know, not a big deal physically—but a big deal for me mentally.” While undergoing treatment, Pat also flew back to the Northwest for a weekend to compete in a bass fishing tournament.
Side effects and life after cancer
Says Pat, “Mentally, this cancer journey is a big deal—you come to grips with your own mortality, and what’s also important is that the people around you come to grips with that, too. They get strength from the strength that you have. One of the things that has changed since I returned is my perspective on things—on what’s important, and giving back, and helping other patients who are going through this process.” Last year he participated in a fundraiser for Gilda’s Club Seattle; he also shares his experiences with other men who are engaged in their own prostate cancer triathlons.
Pat has experienced virtually no side effects from his proton therapy treatment. His most recent PSA test came back with a result that was “amazingly low.” When he returned home to Sammamish in December 2011, he announced his goal of completing an Iron Man 70.3 race—a half Iron Man—within one year of his diagnosis. He completed the Lake Stevens Iron Man 70.3 on July 15, 2012. (A “half” is comprised of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike course, and 13.1-mile run.)
“My prostate cancer treatment hasn’t impacted my health and it hasn’t impacted my intensity,” Pat says. “It’s not tragic to have cancer—the tragedy is not knowing what your best approach to treating it is. Especially if it’s a decision you’ll be living with for the next 50 years.”