News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Sisters man lauds proton therapy

Longtime Sisters resident Bill Willitts is on a mission to reach as many men as he can to educate them about the value of proton therapy in the treatment of prostate cancer — a treatment which has a cure rate of 85-90 percent.

Last fall, Willitts was told by his urologist that his PSA (prostate specific antigen), which was first found to be high 10 years ago, had gone higher. With a biopsy, it was determined that he had developed prostate cancer. His urologist told him that a radical prostatectomy (surgical removal of the entire prostate) was the gold standard for curing cancer. Willitts wasn’t willing to accept all the possible side effects of the surgery, including post-surgical impotence and urinary incontinence.

His own personal research led Willitts to one of the 41 centers in the U.S. that offer proton therapy to treat cancer, Loma Linda University Cancer Center in California. Most centers are located at large institutions due to the expense of setting up a proton treatment program, which involves highly technical and expensive equipment.

Willitts arrived at Loma Linda on December 4, 2022, and underwent 39 proton therapy treatments. Not only did he receive treatment for his cancer, but he enjoyed physical and emotional support as well.

He was part of a group of men who were all at Loma Linda to receive proton therapy for prostate cancer. Some lived together, each in their own apartment, at Richie Mansion, and others who were accompanied by their wives found alternative housing. All of the men participated in a support group called the Loma Linda Proton Brotherhood, celebrating on Wednesday nights at a local restaurant banquet room when someone finished their treatment and graduated from the program. Attire for the graduate was a hospital gown and mortar board.

Since 2010, there has been an over 500 percent increase in treatment centers offering proton therapy, but still over two-thirds of the U.S. population lives over 100 miles from a proton treatment center. Many cancer patients face unnecessary delays and denials of treatment due to reluctance of some insurance providers to offer coverage for the treatment.

In 2021, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill, which was signed by Governor Kate Brown, that prohibits insurers from imposing prior authorization or other utilization requirements on coverage of proton beam therapy for prostate cancer that are more restrictive than prior authorization or utilization review requirements applied to covering radiation therapy.

A positive of proton treatment is that the high dose of proton beams to the cancer and the lower normal-tissue exposure improve local control and reduce complications as compared with x-ray therapy. The first 20 proton treatments do involve tissue outside the bounds of the tumor in case of any metastasis. The treatment of the tumor is so precise because each patient has a mold made of the prostate gland, which is then attached to the camera delivering the proton beams, assuring the beams only impact the tumor and not surrounding healthy tissue.

Although Willitts was receiving treatment five days a week while at Loma Linda, he worked out in their gym and three times a week ran six miles on the Jedi Trail at a nearby park, which had a 1,000-foot elevation gain.

Willitts is back home in Sisters and feeling spry. He believes his treatment protocol in California was a “life changer.” He encourages all men over 50 to have annual PSA checks. If a diagnosis of prostate cancer is received, he urges men to “investigate your options.” His local urologist didn’t offer the proton therapy as an alternative.

“Have the courage to override medical advice,” said Willitts.

He has copies of a book available that he is willing to give away titled “You Can Beat Prostate Cancer – And You Don’t Need Surgery to Do It.” Willitts is willing to talk with anyone who has questions or concerns. Email him at [email protected]


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