The Perspective of a Former Fighter Pilot and Cancer Patient
By Colonel (Ret.) Alton Whitley
Nearly one year ago, in December 2012, my wife, Ann, and I were amidst finalizing travel plans for a long awaited cruise to the Caribbean when my doctor called with sudden news. After watching my prostate specific antigen (PSA) score, a blood marker used to detect prostate cancer, climb slowly over the years, he suggested that I should come in for a biopsy because my last test results had shown a dramatic increase. When we returned from our trip, I learned I had prostate cancer.
It marked the beginning of a journey that, now nearly over, bears striking similarities to the life I knew before cancer – at least in terms of fascinating and advanced technology. It’s not what you might expect to hear from someone who just a week ago was enduring radiation therapy – but then, my therapy wasn’t typical either.
I retired from the Air Force after serving 26 years as a fighter pilot, and then celebrated a second retirement after almost 15 years as an Air Force Junior ROTC instructor. My military service included two tours in Vietnam and combat action in Desert Storm, where I served as the commander of the 37th Fighter Wing flying the F-117A stealth fighter.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was a healthy 67-year old routinely walking two-three miles each day and working out with a personal trainer a few days a week. Working in the yard around the house and attending a variety of sporting events with Ann in our hometown in South Carolina kept me active.
Because my quality of life was as important as curing my cancer, I diligently set out to evaluate my options. But conversations with my doctors and other men who had experienced prostate cancer didn’t yield what I wanted close to home. I’d begun researching proton therapy, an advanced form of radiation, and that led me to The University of Texas MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center. I became convinced proton therapy was the best option for me, the one that would allow me to accomplish my goal of successfully treating my disease and doing so with few or no side effects.
In my research and during my treatment, I was struck by the parallels between proton therapy and my experience with the F-117A stealth fighter. The F-117A employed new and innovative technology designed to operate in a dangerous, unforgiving environment. While many are aware of the F-117A’s stealth technology, few appreciate that there were also major technological advancements in intelligence gathering, detailed precise mission planning, target acquisition and tracking, weapons delivery and guidance, navigation and the integration of all these technologies to develop an aircraft capable of avoiding a major side effect that other combat aircraft might easily suffer in a high threat environment – loss of aircraft or what’s known as attrition.
All these new and innovative technologies made the F-117A both unique and relatively expensive. From the beginning, especially in the early years of the F-117A program, there were many naysayers who complained the aircraft was too costly. But as a pilot flying into the heart of a very capable air defense system, night after night during Desert Storm, cost was not a concern. We were “in it to win it,” concerned only with delivering the bombs on intended target without collateral damage to civilians or nonmilitary structures and, of course, surviving to return home safely.
Just as stealth technology has become more capable, so has proton therapy. It is an ever-improving approach to cancer treatment that saves lives with unprecedented accuracy in putting the proton beam directly on the intended target – the tumor – while minimizing any side effects.
And as with stealth technology and the F-117A, I learned proton therapy has skeptics who question the treatment’s cost and value. But they are not patients. Faced with a disease that could kill me, I wanted the most capable treatment and one that would cause minimal damage to other parts of my body. As a patient, I was not focused on cost. I didn’t just want to survive; I wanted to continue to be a productive member of society and to not become a burden to my family or society post-treatment.
When I flew into the teeth of battle in Desert Storm with the explosions of antiaircraft artillery and surface to air missiles raging about me, I knew I was extremely fortunate to be in a stealth aircraft that allowed me to find a specific target and precisely deliver my weapons with maximum effect and minimum collateral damage.
Likewise, when I found MD Anderson and proton therapy, I knew my treatment team could attack my tumor with precision and destroy that target with maximum effect and minimal, if any, side effects. In both cases, I was blessed that people had shown the initiative and determination to pursue breakthrough technologies that would benefit mankind, despite the widespread criticism of their initial costs.