It was just over a year ago that 54-year-old Kevin Burns went in for an annual physical.
The Raymore resident lived an active lifestyle, and was otherwise a healthy individual – frequently visiting the lakes, riding motorcycles, fishing, RV-ing, spending time with his 2-year-old grandson, and working as a marketing/sales vice president, not much slowed him down.
But when a routine check-up revealed that Burns had an elevated PSA test, doctors became concerned.
The news came as a blow, Burns said, as doctors began throwing around the scary “C” word.
“He had been getting his PSAs regularly for a number of years, and it had doubled in one year,” said Sandy Burns, Kevin’s wife. “That’s kind of a red flag when that happens.”
After meeting with several different specialists and two biopsies later, doctors confirmed that Burns had prostate cancer.
“It’s just mind-boggling to try sort through it all,” he said. “You just don’t know what it’s going to hold for you at that point.”
Burns’ initial biopsy came back negative, which added to the confusion of the situation, he said. The couple decided to seek out a second opinion in which a more invasive procedure was performed and later confirmed the cancer.
“The PSA number wasn’t tremendously elevated compared to what some might consider elevated, but doubling in one year is something that men should really follow up on,” Sandy Burns said.
The couple was thankful though that the disease had been caught early.
“We’re very blessed in a way that we did that and that the cancer was found very, very early,” Sandy Burns said.
As Burns came to terms with the diagnoses, he began considering his treatment options.
“You try to figure out how it is going to affect your life going forward and how much time that you have left and what your treatment options are,” he said. “In the Kansas City area, most urologists appear to be surgeons so they either wanted to do what is called a radical prostatectomy, which is open surgery, or robotic surgery.”
Burns said he didn’t know any different and scheduled a robotic surgery. But in the time leading up to the surgery, he said it was just by coincidence that a friend had a family member undergo an alternative treatment, called proton therapy, for the cancer.
“I started researching it,” he said. “The patient and their families are the ones that have to do the most research because you’re going to get directed in the Kansas City area to surgery. That’s just it. All of the surgeons downplay all of the other radiation therapy as not a good option because you can’t have surgery after you have radiation.”
The more he started looking at proton therapy, Burns learned that the major benefit of proton therapy is that since protons have a charge and a mass, you can choose how far you would like the proton beam to go.
Unlike an X-ray which goes all the way through, protons stop in the tissue and you can avoid normal tissue that doesn’t need to be treated.
Because the accuracy of the beam, you can drastically reduce side effects and recovery time.
In addition to treating prostate cancer in men, the therapy has also been proven as an effective form of treatment for children with brain and spinal tumors, as well as cancers in the lung, esophageal cancer, and breast cancer.
Burns found that the closest location for proton therapy was in Oklahoma City at ProCure Proton Therapy Center.
There are only currently 10 proton therapy locations the United States, and five more that are under construction.
“Two of the main side effects that men with prostate cancer would be most worried about is incontinence and erectile dysfunction,” Sandy Burns said. “Proton treatment is something where those things are rarely side effects that men will experience, unless you’re already having trouble with those types of things.With prostatectomies, that’s a very real possibility.”
Burns said the doctors he worked with in the Kansas City area weren’t very aware of proton therapy, but decided it was the best treatment option for him.
“A lot of people think it’s an experimental thing and it really isn’t,” he said. “Just by researching it, you find out that the effectiveness and safety of it is something that is really appealing to a person my age because the side effects are so minimal compared to your other options, such as surgery.”
He also didn’t want surgery to interrupt his active lifestyle, if possible.
The proton therapy Burns received lasted nine weeks, consisting of 44 daily treatments, with the weekends off, so the couple moved to Oklahoma City for a little over two months.
“It’s not like other radiation where you really get physical side effects or really get wore out. You don’t feel a thing. We were able to go to restaurants, sight see, it was a busy time actually,” he said. “With the proton therapy, the energy is stopped right at the target, where the tumor is, so you don’t have any collateral damage.”
In good spirits after the treatment, Burns joked that the treatment has it’s own nickname – a “radiation vacation” and that it is the only cancer treatment that has its’ own online fan club -- “Proton Bob” (www.protonbob.com), which has connected more than 6,000 prostate cancer survivors.
“I’m not saying this is the best option for everyone, but people should have the opportunity to explore all their options for treatments, and proton was certainly the right option for me,” he said.
But in all seriousness, Burns said his experience over the last year is one that all men need to take to heart.
“I think it’s important that men do their PSA test,” he said. “This is proof that a PSA test does catch it, and can catch it early when people have an overwhelming opportunity to beat the cancer.”