On April Fool’s Day 2010, Dan Stasi of DeKalb was told news that was not a laughing matter: “You have cancer.”
Stasi, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer, was told he had three options: wait and see, have surgery or undergo radiation. On blood thinners for a blood clot in his leg, surgery was risky and could lead to incontinence problems.
Soon after Stasi’s diagnosis, one of his friends suggested proton therapy.
“When I first heard that I was diagnosed with cancer, I thought it was a death sentence,” Stasi said. “All kinds of thoughts ran through my head. Why me? What did I do wrong? Was it from exercise or my diet or hereditary? I wanted to get rid of it, and get rid of it permanently. Then, I heard about proton therapy, and everything changed.”
Proton therapy is a form of radiation treatment that uses proton particles to combat cancerous tumors. Hydrogen atoms are put into a particle accelerator called a cyclotron, which reaches speeds up to two-thirds the speed of light. The speed heats hydrogen atoms so that the electrons are lost, leaving behind only protons. Protons interacting with the electrons in the atoms of cancer cells results in damage to the cancer cell’s DNA, causing it to die. As the cancer cells die, so does the tumor.
Proton therapy was first proposed in 1946 by Dr. Robert Wilson, who became the first director of FermiLab. In the 1950s, protons were researched in nuclear physics research facilities. The first proton therapy center was built in Southern California about 25 years ago. There are 20 proton centers now in operation in the U.S., with 16 new centers in development.
When Stasi first went for proton therapy, he traveled to Bloomington, Indiana. He was told a new center, closer to home, would open near Naperville in several months. After his second treatment, Stasi could not continue because he developed an infection. Before he decided to give up proton therapy for good, he made one last attempt by signing up for an appointment at the newly opened office, the Northwestern Medicine Chicago Proton Center in Warrenville. KishHealth System became part of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare late last year.
When Stasi first went to proton therapy center in Warrenville, he met Dr. Bill Hartsell, a radiation oncologist and the center’s medical director. Hartsell quickly diagnosed and treated Stasi’s infection and scheduled proton therapy treatments.
Hartsell said proton therapy is different from other forms of radiation because it targets a specific cancerous area, without killing nearby healthy, cancer-free cells. Due to the importance of keeping healthy cells and tissue, proton therapy is often used to treat children and eye, brain, mouth, throat and lung tumors.
“X-rays are like a rifle with a bullet, they go until they hit something,” Hartsell said. “Proton particles are like a smart bomb or bottle rocket. You can direct exactly where the treatment goes much better, so there is less loss off the normal, healthy tissue around the tumor.”
By using scans, Stasi’s tumor was located and a small dot was tattooed on his body. The dot was used to line him up for treatments, which lasted nine weeks. During that time, Stasi was able to work full-time at his job as the executive director of the Illinois Mental Health Counselors Association.
“I was able to leave home and be at the center in less than an hour,” he said. “During treatments, I didn’t feel a thing. Each treatment lasted two or three minutes, and it took me about 10 minutes to change in and out of my clothes. I had one of the first appointments of the day at 8 a.m., and I was out of there by 8:15.”
Hartsell said the side effects of proton therapy are often less intensive than other forms of radiation treatment. Patients will not lose their hair, which is a common side effect of chemotherapy. Proton therapy patients will feel less fatigue and soreness than with other types of radiation. If the cancerous tumor is close to the skin, patients may receive a mild sunburn at the site of treatment. The slight sunburn, fatigue and soreness will go away after treatment is complete.
When Stasi finished his nine weeks of treatment, the medical staff at the proton center threw him a party.
“When it first ends, you sort of miss the treatment, you miss seeing the treatment team,” he said. “You see them every day, you bond with them and make friendships. It is such a relief to have this behind me. It’s a huge weight off your shoulders. I never knew so many men are diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was lucky to catch the cancer early, go for proton treatment and have the support of my wife.”
Stasi said he hopes other cancer patients choose proton therapy or at least consider it as one of their options. Stasi, now 65 years old, has been cancer-free for more than five years. He has a follow-up exam once a year and a blood test every six months.
“My wife, Ronna Heinig, was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago, and her journey has been much different than mine,” Stasi said. “She’s had chemo, radiation, prescription drugs and she lost her hair. I just want others to look into their options, and don’t leave proton therapy out. I credit Dr. Hartsell and the medical team with my success story. Proton treatment may not be right for everybody, but for me, it was a great choice.”
Hartsell said he’s happy to hear of Stasi’s continued success, but that he hears similar success stories every day.
“Over 60 percent, nearly two-thirds, of cancer patients are cured, and they’re long-term survivors,” he said. “Rather of thinking of cancer as a death sentence, it’s now curable, like a chronic illness. With treatment, you can live a pretty normal life. … Our main goal is to cure people with proton therapy treatment and let them live normal lives. Protons really can make a difference.”