One couple shares lessons learned along their long and winding road.
Dale and Rebecca Olson became friends in junior high and stayed in touch into adulthood. They were in their 40s when Dale asked Rebecca if she wanted to go to a Paul McCartney concert. She’s a huge Beatles fan so of course she said “yes.” A couple of years later, they were married. Their long and winding road would lead them into unexpected territory.
They’d been married 15 years when Dale was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His diagnosis wasn’t a clear or definitive process. It started with multiple doctors at different clinics with different perspectives on whether Dale needed to have his PSA tested, an MRI, or a biopsy. Rebecca started reading everything she could about prostate cancer.
Dale’s treatment plan also wasn’t clear cut. The surgeon suggested surgery, but Dale was worried about the potential side effects, especially incontinence. As a supervisor for the Monroe Parks and Recreation Department, Dale could not imagine living life while wearing a diaper.
“Urinary incontinence was a big deal for Dale,” Rebecca says. “He works with the public all the time. I mean, every little old lady in Monroe who’s got a problem with a plant walks up to talk to him. People even call him at home. So, wearing a diaper around would not make his day.”
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They decided to explore other options. Rebecca had heard about proton therapy when her sister was treated for uterine cancer that spread to the brain. Rebecca understood that while regular radiation irradiates all the tissue it travels through, proton therapy delivers the full dose to the tumor and then it stops.
“Radiation to healthy tissue is bad,” Rebecca says. “We want it to zap the crap out of those cancer cells, right? But regular radiation can do damage to the healthy tissue and organs, and then you have to worry about potential secondary cancers.”
Dale and Rebecca met with a radiation oncologist at SCCA Proton Therapy Center and decided to go ahead with proton therapy, only to find out that it wasn’t covered by their insurance. The next step was for Rebecca to spend dozens of hours writing an 84-page appeal to the Teamsters union who handled their insurance. Eventually, her appeal was approved and Dale started proton therapy radiation.
In January of 2019, Dale completed his treatment. By then Rebecca had quit her job at Boeing to spend time with and help her husband. Becoming a full-time caregiver was a sort of on-the-job training for Rebecca. She learned a great deal about caring for a cancer patient and helping them chart a course through a thicket of choices and decisions. Here are a few things she’s learned.
- Get a second opinion. Rebecca recommends not ever taking the advice of only one doctor. Many prostate cancer patients’ first appointments are with urologists who are surgeons and therefore often recommend surgery. Just make sure you know all the options.
- Read up on your loved one’s diagnosis to learn everything you can so you can ask pertinent questions.
- Take notes or record every doctor’s appointment so the patient can focus on asking questions and getting to know the physician. Then, when you leave, you won’t find yourselves wondering or arguing about what was said.
Rebecca was her husband’s devoted advocate and didn’t spend much time caring for herself. However, the American Cancer Society recommends caregivers try to avoid burnout by practicing some self-care. Make sure you tend to your own nutrition and exercise needs, manage your stress and deal with your own fears.
Rebecca and Dale have a few months before their next regular follow up where they’ll know more about how well radiation worked. For now, they’re enjoying time at home on their three-quarters-of-an-acre property. The yard is beautiful, but Rebecca says they spend most of their vacations working to maintain it. She hopes that Dale will retire in the next few years and they can take some road trips with their miniature dachshund.
“Dale’s diagnosis really kind of changed where my priorities in life are,” Rebecca says. “I had been wanting to spend more time with my mom and then she passed away right before Christmas, right before I retired. Her death kind of confirmed for me to spend more time with my husband. He’s my priority.”
SCCA Proton Therapy Center uses precisely targeted radiation to treat tumors while preserving surrounding healthy tissue and reducing the potential for side effects. Protons are beneficial in treating patients with a broad range of tumors, including brain, breast, lung and prostate.