Background image: Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge.
My Fling With a Radiation-Spewing Robot
March 7, 2015
I had the good fortune to discover I had prostate cancer in 2003 -- "good fortune" because it was found early and almost by accident.
The women's professional soccer league I had been working for in San Jose ceased operations in September after completing its third season. But as part of the severance package for the most senior employees, our health insurance ran until the end of the year. I was 52 years old, past the 50-year threshold when it's recommended that you begin annual physicals, and I decided to take advantage of the insurance to get one even though I felt fine.
The PSA (prostate specific antigen) level in my blood was found to be slightly above normal, which prompted further investigation and, ultimately, a biopsy to see whether infection or something else might be causing my prostate to be pumping out extra amounts of this protein that only it produces.
The last of six needle sticks brought back a few cancer cells. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if the urologist had chosen a slightly different location.
My prostate was removed at Stanford Hospital on Groundhog Day, 2004. In the periodic blood checks that followed, no PSA could be found for months, meaning that either no more prostate cells remained in my body or that there were too few of them to produce a measurable amount of PSA.
And then, a couple of years after surgery, a tiny amount of PSA registered in one of those blood checks. The level fluctuated around a very low reading for a year or so before it established a steady growth curve on the graph, indicating that I had cancer again.
My surgeon turned me over to a radiation oncologist at the beginning of 2011 so I could begin a course of radiation intended to kill all the remaining prostate cells in my body. I visited the basement at Stanford five times a week for seven weeks to spend a few minutes inside an enormous machine called a linear accelerator -- mine was linear accelerator number 15, or LA-15 for short -- that blasted my tumor with high intensity X rays.
My PSA level has remained undetectable ever since.
I wrote a newsletter about my treatment, which you can read in my archive here. I also used my wife's point-and-shoot digital camera in video mode to create the video below of what a typical treatment session was like and how LA-15 did its work.
The video took only two sessions to shoot. In the first, I simply put the camera on a counter pointed at where I would lie inside the machine and then let it record the session, which took about two minutes. The next day I gave the camera to the radiation therapy technologists, who ran LA-15 from a radiation-proof room nearby, to show the treatment from their vantage point. With some free software, I edited the two sessions into a single 4 1/2-minute video.
The video didn't exactly go viral, but it's gotten nearly 8,000 views on YouTube and compliments from other men with cancer as well as the scientists and engineers who developed the technology and built LA-15.