For Cancer Survivor Month, marked each June, we followed up with four proton therapy patients who were treated at Fred Hutch Cancer Center several years ago. We wanted to learn how they are feeling now and what they’ve been doing.

Originally diagnosed in 2017 with stage 3 endometrial cancer which had spread to her cervix and many of her lymph nodes, Traci Treffert had proton therapy in 2019 for a cancer recurrence in a single lymph node. We first shared her story in March 2020.

“My first thought was, ‘No!’ I was not going to do that again,” said Treffert. She had developed Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that results in an overactive thyroid, as a result of her initial treatment. This ruled out most cancer therapy options. “Proton therapy was basically my only option, for which I will be forever grateful. I had no side effects whatsoever with protons.”

Though she has a few lingering side effects to her immune system from her Graves’ disease, for the most part she is feeling better all the time.

Cancer is “not the center of my world”

The same is true for Dawn Thomas, who was originally diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017 and received proton therapy to treat a recurrence in 2020.

“I feel great,” said Thomas. “I never felt bad through protons and immunotherapy at Fred Hutch. I stay active and follow Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s philosophy: It’s not the center of my world.”

In 2017, Thomas went in for what she thought was a mild case of pneumonia, but her primary care physician insisted on ordering an MRI, where a tumor was discovered. Thomas had surgery and went on active surveillance, but eventually she was referred for proton therapy because the tumors were right in the center of her chest, near her heart and esophagus.

“I absolutely feel that protons made a difference in how I feel today,” said Thomas. “It zeroed in on the cancer without affecting other organs nearly as much as traditional radiation might have.”

Proton therapy “shortened my recovery time”

Maddy Hamilton, a brain cancer patient who finished proton therapy three years ago, agreed.

“I really feel that proton therapy shortened my recovery time and has not impacted me as much as some people I’ve met who had standard radiation treatment,” she said.

Hamilton was experiencing numbness and an occasional inability to speak before she was diagnosed with an astrocytoma in the Broca area of the brain — the region that turns thoughts into spoken words. She had surgery to remove the tumor, but some of it still remained. Proton therapy was recommended to target the remaining tumor because it minimized exposing the sensitive tissues in the region to radiation. Patients with damage to this area can make sounds, but they cannot form words.

Recovery following treatment has been challenging at times. It took about a year before Hamilton felt less easily overwhelmed and could process information faster.

“I’m grateful every day that I’m still here”

Jeff Camp was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016 and had robotic surgery to remove his prostate. Afterwards, he and his provider monitored his prostate-specific antigen (PSA), but by 2019, it had elevated and intervention was necessary.

After researching different treatment options, Camp decided on proton therapy and finished treatment in March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. He never had any side effects or complications from treatment.

Over the years, Camp’s PSA numbers have crept up from 0.0 post-treatment to .04. It’s a tiny increase, and he knows the chances of developing prostate cancer again are minimal. At his follow-up phone calls with Jonathan J. Chen, MD, PhD, they speak mostly about the Detroit Lions because Camp is doing so well.

Still, the thought of cancer crosses his mind every single day.

“My father died of cancer five weeks after being diagnosed,” said Camp. “I am grateful every day that I am still here, but there’s also a certain amount of anxiety. Am I a survivor? Just having had cancer means it’s something I think about, but can’t quite answer.”

Focusing on the here and now

All four patients look at the world differently now.

“Before cancer, a huge portion of my life was focused on working,” said Treffert. “I liked the mental challenges that work provided. Now, I focus on experiencing what life has to offer. I want to make sure I am living a more authentic and purposeful life, so I look for and try new experiences, taking day and weekend trips, eating new foods, meeting new people.”

Although she has always considered herself a positive thinker, cancer allowed Thomas to take a step back to review what she hadn’t accomplished.

“Now, instead of thinking about it and planning for a long time, I am a bit quicker to act. I give myself permission to enjoy things in the now,” she said. She and a friend recently returned from a trip to Sedona, and she and her husband have planned a European cruise to Spain and France this summer.

Camp retired during the COVID-19 pandemic but has continued to do what he loves best, umpiring and photography. He needs a knee surgery this summer but looks forward to his 50th year high school reunion with his tiny class of 12. He is also spending a lot of time with his baby granddaughter, who he says brings a lot of delight into his life.

“Prior to my diagnosis and treatment, I had a lot of anxiety about the future, my career, etc., and feel that I now spend more time focusing on the present,” added Hamilton. “I spend more time prioritizing time with my family and am thankful for the things I have been able to accomplish — such as becoming a parent.”

Hamilton had been referred to fertility counseling before treatment because it was unknown whether her treatment would impact her ability to have children. The options were incredibly expensive. Despite knowing she wanted children, she opted not to have any fertility preserving procedures.

“I wanted to have more time with my husband and my family even if meant that I wouldn’t get to have a baby,” she said. “I felt very sad that I had to make this decision when I was so young.”

It was then exciting news when Hamilton and her husband were able to conceive and welcomed their baby in January. She was also able to finish her degree and start her career as a pediatric occupational therapist.

Advice for other patients

“Do what makes you feel good,” said Thomas. “I surround myself with things that make me happy. Really think about yourself and what you need. Ask your support system for things that help you — even if you just need a laugh or a listening ear.”

“It’s OK to feel overwhelmed,” Hamilton added. “Even with the best support from friends and family, there might be days where you break down crying because so much has been added to your life.”

“Perform your due diligence, ask lots of questions and don’t feel pressured to make a certain decision,” said Camp. “Seek help from patients who went through it. I had spoken to a friend who had proton therapy for brain cancer — and her physician husband — before my own treatment. Then I spoke to a friend a few years after about my own experience. He chose proton therapy, too.”

“My advice for patients is to just ‘lean into it,’ ask the questions, make sure you understand,” said Treffert. “The staff at the proton therapy facility are phenomenal, caring, patient and so very smart — and they will help.”

“Sometimes you don’t know how strong you are until you face something like cancer,” Thomas concluded. “It’s important to take stock of that. Cancer is often a relatively short time of your life, but the lessons will truly last a lifetime.”

This article was originally published May 29, 2024, by Fred Hutch News Service. It is republished with permission.