Nothing comes between this man and his bicycle.
Not even cancer.
Not even when it’s near the seat of his pants.
Avid cyclist Rich Braun of Everett biked his usual 14-mile roundtrip daily commute to work during his nine weeks of 44 treatments for prostate cancer.
For the final treatment, he pedaled 20 miles to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Proton Therapy ProCure Center.
“I just rode all the way down there,” Braun said. “They couldn’t believe I rode from home.”
This month marks one year of success from proton therapy. The regimen targets high doses of radiation to tumors with minimal harm to nearby healthy tissues.
Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths in men. According to the American Cancer Society, about 230,000 new cases are diagnosed a year. The risk increases with age for what is usually a slow-growing cancer that forms in tissues of the male reproductive gland.
Braun’s cancer was detected though a PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, screening test. His employer, Marine Spill Response Corp., started offering free screening tests to workers after a corporate executive was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“I did my first PSA test back in 2010,” said Braun, a communications supervisor for the national company that cleans up oil spills. “It wasn’t zero like it should be. It was up a little bit. The next year it was up a little bit more. The next year it was up a lot.”
A biopsy revealed the cancer hadn’t spread. The urologist told him there was time to explore options such as surgery or radiotherapy.
Braun joined a prostate cancer support group at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett to learn more about the various treatments.
“I started listening to their stories,” he said. “It seemed like everybody had some issue. The big one was incontinence. That doesn’t fit my lifestyle. I bicycle. I ski a lot. I do a lot of cross-country skiing during the winter. The whole idea of wearing a diaper and trying to do these things wasn’t going to cut it.”
This is, after all, a guy when asked his age replies “60 and a half.”
Braun researched proton therapy, which the company executive had successfully had undergone in Southern California, the closest treatment center at the time.
“I knew that was the way I wanted to go,” Braun said.
He couldn’t afford to go to California for three months, but he didn’t give up.
“In one of my searches I saw a little blurb that something was going to open in Seattle,” he said. “It was going to open in spring of 2013. This was in September the year before.”
Braun decided to wait it out. He watched the ProCure Center being built on the University of Washington’s Medicine’s Northwest Hospital &Medical Center campus.
“They had a live web cam looking down where you could watch as they were building the facility,” he said. “I’d watch the guys moving around and then they’d stop for lunch and I was like, ‘Come on. Get to work, guys.’”
The monitoring paid off. “When they opened it. I was the first person on the doorstep,” Braun said. “They weren’t really even ready for people to really come.”
He was among the first graduates.
“He’s a good example of the patients we see. A lot are motivated like him,” radiation oncologist Dr. L. Christine Fang said.
Proton therapy is also used to treat brain tumors, breast cancer and other cancers.
“It stops at a specified distance. It spares a lot of normal tissue,” Fang said.
It often has no or minimal side effects. That’s the good news.
The bad news: It’s expensive, and not all insurance companies cover it, but Braun’s did.
Fang gave him the nod to continue the daily bike rides to work during treatment. Braun has done the same 40-minute route from his north Everett home to the office near the Boeing plant for years. People along Colby Avenue can set their watch by the guy in the yellow safety vest with the big grin and mustache.
After biking to work, Braun’s wife would pick him up and drive him to Seattle for treatment.
There, it would go something like this:
“I’d drink about 20 ounces of water,” Braun said. “I’d go in, put the gown on. Sit on a graphite table. They line you up to make sure it’s the same every single time. Once it’s all confirmed with the computers and everything, then they’d have a snout that comes down. That’s what the protons come out of. They’d all leave and go back in their rooms and do their thing and you wouldn’t hear anything. A couple minutes later, they’d come back and turn me around on the other side and make sure I was lined up. Then they’d all disappear.”
The device was “like something out of ‘Star Wars.’ It was the coolest thing,” Braun said. “I couldn’t feel anything. One time I accused them, ‘Are you sure you guys are doing anything?’”
On the last day of treatment in Seattle, in addition to surprising the medical staff by riding his bike, he put big smiley face temporary tattoos on his body where the proton beams were aimed.
Braun now gets PSA tests every three months. So far so good.
He encourages other patients to explore treatment options to do what fits best.
“Do your research. You have to be your best advocate,” he said. “If I went to Las Vegas and gambled, I’d want to gamble on something with the best odds in my favor.”
More about proton therapy
For more information about Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Proton Therapy ProCure Center, go to www.procure.com.
Andrea Brown; 425-339-3443; firstname.lastname@example.org.