Jim survived Sarcoma thanks to his granddaughter and proton therapy

When Jim Copen went to pick up his 6-year old granddaughter, she pointed out something unusual about him that she hadn’t noticed before.

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Jim Copen

“She told me, ‘Grandpa, your belly is sticking out’,” Jim recalls. “She had noticed my entire stomach was bulging and that’s when we decided to get it checked out.”

In May of 2019, after a biopsy of the foreign mass, Jim was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer that develops in the fatty tissue. This type of tumor can grow anywhere in the body and is malignant, meaning it can spread to other nearby vital organs. For Jim, the tumor was growing in his abdomen outside his peritoneal cavity, a closed sac that contains the digestive organs: intestines, stomach, spleen, and liver. After receiving surgery in August of 2019 to remove the tumor, Jim was told the chance the cancer would return was high. Unfortunately in January 2021, it returned.

Following his second diagnosis, Jim was referred to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to consult with a team of specialists on liposarcoma. After consultation, Jim knew he would still have to receive a second surgery to remove the tumor, but was encouraged to consider radiation therapy to improve our ability to cure Jim and keep his tumor from coming back locally. Jim’s oncologist, Dr. Stephanie Schaub favored proton therapy for Jim’s specific case because protons have a physical advantage of no “exit radiation dose” that would allow us to best treat his tumor while minimizing risk to his surrounding critical organs, such as his only remaining kidney, bowels, stomach, and liver.

Jim is a scientist with a keen interest in better understanding how protons work. We arranged for Jim to consult with one of the Medical Physicists at the SCCA Proton Center. The physicist sat down with Jim and reviewed his treatment plan to provide a deeper understanding of the complexity, quality assurance, and thoughtful planning that is required to deliver this sophisticated form of radiation therapy.

When deciding if proton therapy treatment was the right choice, it was a family decision. He consulted with his wife, Sally, and their two children, specifically his son who has a background in nursing. After discussing with his family, Jim felt confident following the recommendation of his care team.  

Jim came to the SCCA Proton Therapy Center daily from Bainbridge Island to receive his treatment. He always felt welcomed and cared for by the SCCA Proton Therapy Center, especially his oncologist, Dr. Schaub. Jim was consistently impressed by the whole staff’s attention to detail and professionalism -- he was always greeted by name at the concierge desk with information on his visit. Following his successful treatment at the Proton Therapy Center, Jim’s sarcoma was small enough to be safely surgically removed. To date, there has been no further evidence of cancer and Jim is recovering from surgery.

Jim’s advice to those considering proton therapy treatment is to not be afraid of it. He said proton therapy treatment was the easiest aspect of his cancer treatment and experienced minimal side effects.

Throughout his cancer treatment, and now on the road to recovery, Jim says maintaining a positive attitude is the best advice he can give to anyone in a similar situation. He is grateful for his family support system. Jim became emotional recalling how important it was to his mental health to be able to openly discuss his feelings on his diagnosis and treatment with his wife and children.  

Sally, Jim’s wife of 50 years “is completely in awe of his strength and resilience.” She believes his positive mindset is what helped them through as a family.  

Jim and Sally picked up the hobby of doing jigsaw puzzles together to stay mentally stimulated and go on walks together regularly to stay active. Sally notes that Jim also does yard work and maintenance to the house in his free time. As he recovers, Jim is most excited to return to the golf course, having visited the course for the first time in 6 months in February after his second surgery to remove the tumor.

Jim is a retired geologist and is looking forward to getting back to his home improvement projects at their family home on Bainbridge Island. He and Sally have two children and three grandchildren that he is eager to spend more time with as he continues to rebuild his strength post-surgery.

Biopsy The removal of a sample of tissue or fluid that is examined to see whether cancer is present. This may be done with a large needle or through surgical removal of tissue or fluids. Oncologist A physician who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer. Some oncologists specialize in a particular type of cancer treatment, such as treating cancer with radiation. A physician who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer. Some oncologists specialize in a particular type of cancer treatment. For example, a radiation oncologist specializes in treating cancer with radiation. Radiation therapy The use of high-energy radiation from X-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. The use of high-energy radiation from x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external-beam radiation therapy), or it may come from radioactive material placed in the body near cancer cells (internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy). Systemic radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance, such as a radiolabeled monoclonal antibody, that travels in the blood to tissues throughout the body. Side effects A problem that occurs when treatment affects healthy tissues or organs. Some side effects of cancer treatment are nausea, vomiting, fatigue, pain, decreased blood cell counts, hair loss and mouth sores. Spleen An organ that is part of the lymphatic system. The spleen makes lymphocytes, filters the blood, stores blood cells and destroys old blood cells. It is on the left side of the abdomen near the stomach. Treatment plan A detailed plan with information about a patient’s disease, the goal of treatment, the treatment options for the disease and the possible side effects and expected length of treatment. A detailed plan with information about a patient’s disease, the goal of treatment, the treatment options for the disease and the possible side effects and expected length of treatment. A treatment plan may also include information about how much the treatment is likely to cost and about regular follow-up care after treatment ends.

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