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Forging Friendships Despite Cancer

Forging Friendships Despite Cancer

Six weeks. Five days a week, sometimes twice a day. That’s up to 60 visits to the SCCA Proton Therapy Center for short treatments for cancer. But, just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you can’t use those 60 opportunities to make new friends. That’s what Robbie and Trina did as they were undergoing cancer treatment at SCCA Proton Therapy Center. Here are their stories.

Robbie, 61, lives in Wenatchee, Washington with his fiancé, Cheryl. Diagnosed with sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma in 2016, he’s had quite the ride fighting this aggressive cancer. First they thought he’d had a stroke, because the cancer manifested as triple vision and a numb face. Once the cancer was diagnosed, doctors prescribed chemo and proton therapy, because the precision proton radiation was necessary due to the location of the tumor in his head. He moved into a motel near the center for twice-a-day treatments. Then, the third day of treatment, he had a heart attack.

Said Robbie: “I knew I had high blood pressure, and I thought it might be related to the chemo, but I went to the ER where they diagnosed the heart attack. I ended up in the hospital across the parking lot from the SCCA Proton Therapy Center. Even though I had to get two stents, I missed only one day of proton therapy—there’s no stopping the treatment plan!”

Trina’s story is almost as dramatic.This Kalispell, Montana, native noticed a lump in her breast in 2015 and discovered she had cancer. She also found out she carried the BRCA 1 gene, which is correlated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. She was only 32 and had two small children, so she underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy to prevent a recurrence. Sadly, the cancer still returned the next year, and that’s when her doctor prescribed removal of lymph nodes, additional chemo, and this time, proton therapy. The heart is very sensitive to radiation, so she needed a form of treatment that could minimize radiation exposure to the heart.

She met Robbie and Cheryl in the waiting room at the proton therapy center, and they quickly hit it off. According to Robbie “Trina really understood what I’m going through, so it leads to very personal conversations. While I’m kind of a quiet person, it was good to talk with someone who could relate - they are going through similar things. I didn’t feel so alone because I had people like Trina to talk to.”

Trina, for her part, was feeling scared and alone, and was disappointed because her sister, who had planned to be with her, missed her flight. Cheryl, overhearing the phone conversation about the missed flight, introduced herself and Cheryl and Robbie quickly became Trina’s surrogate family. They would give her rides to the grocery store and even came back to her proton graduation ceremony to support her.

Both Trina and Robbie found the environment at the center to be conducive to their friendship: it was warm, welcoming, and not at all like going to the doctor. Trina said: “They really treat you like a person, not a number, which is rare in a medical setting.” 

Robbie agreed: “When I had my heart attack, they were calling to see how I was doing. Every person was very, very nice and genuinely cared.They took good care of Cheryl as well; they care about the families, too. It was actually kind of hard to leave, because you make friends with the caring staff.”

Neither Robbie nor Trina had substantial side effects from the radiation treatment; Trina had a sunburn-like effect, and Robbie had some fatigue, but both found proton therapy surprisingly easy to manage.

Today, both are doing well. Robbie feels stronger every day, is back to playing golf, and is ready to get back on his bicycle. Trina is working at UPS, wrangling two small children while her husband is off at basic training for the Air Force, and is cancer free. Both are still connected on Facebook, and enjoy watching each other get on with their lives.