100th Proton Therapy Patient Says He's Glad He Chose McLaren and Karmanos in Flint

100th Proton Therapy Patient Says He's Glad He Chose McLaren and Karmanos in Flint

The Karmanos Cancer Institute (KCI) at McLaren Flint and the McLaren Proton Therapy Center offers Genesee County cancer patients the best chance in beating their disease by providing comprehensive cancer treatment options under one roof. Gary Howard of Mt. Morris says he would not have it any other way.

"Everything I do is McLaren," explains Howard. "With the system, the physicians I see always know where my health is. The communication is there. I do everything here." 

Howard was diagnosed with base of tongue cancer. By the time he visited a specialist and got the diagnosis from his McLaren provider, the oral cancer had advanced and spread to his lymph nodes in his neck. He was then referred to KCI at McLaren Flint to explore his best treatment options. The type of cancer tumor that Howard had was particularly tough to treat due to its proximity to the spinal cord. After being referred to KCI, Howard had a few options to weigh, including proton therapy treatment available at the McLaren Proton Therapy Center.

Gary Howard received cancer treatment at the McLaren Proton Therapy Center in Flint, Michigan for base of tongue cancer.

"Dr. Hesham Gayar and his team were very good about telling the pros and cons to both proton radiation and the regular radiation," says Stacy Rockwell, Howard's daughter.

Howard says he chose proton therapy over traditional radiation treatments because Dr. Gayar and his team would be able to precisely target the tumors while minimizing radiation to uninvolved healthy tissues. There is no exit dose with protons, so radiation stops at the boundary of the tumor without exposing much of the surrounding healthy tissue.

"With protons, the radiation only hits what it's aimed at," explains Howard. "That's what I liked about it because regular radiation would go from here all the way through here," as he points to both sides of his neck. "After treating one area, the table turns around so I can receive treatment on the other side."

Howard started his proton therapy treatments in April. At the same time, Dr. Gayar, board-certified radiation oncologist and Medical Director of the McLaren Proton Therapy Center, worked with medical oncologists next door at KCI to make sure Howard's proton therapy treatment plan was coordinated with his chemotherapy treatments to achieve the best outcome.

Due to the location of the cancer sites, Howard experienced some side effects. Dr. Gayar says his body's response to the chemotherapy and proton therapy was significantly better than if he would have received traditional radiation treatment.

"Mr. Howard had complete response of his cancer with proton therapy," explains Dr. Gayar. "He experienced the expected side effects due to the location of the tumor. That includes slight complications with swallowing, speech and temporary facial hair loss. Mr. Howard experienced less side effects and less permanent damage to healthy tissue compared to conventional radiation and he is recovering quite well."

Howard's daughter says he had to have a feeding tube put in during treatment, but he is now doing well enough that he should be able to have the tube removed soon.

Gary Howard (r), head and neck cancer patient, rings the victory bell at the McLaren Proton Therapy Center on his last day of proton therapy treatments. He is celebrated by (l-r) medical assistant Valerie David, radiation therapist Amanda Brown, B.S.R.T. (T), and proton patient navigator Nicole Cygnar, R.T. (R)(T).

"He'll be doing a little bit of therapy to strengthen his esophagus muscles to help him move on to bigger and better things in the food world," explains Rockwell.

After 10 weeks of proton therapy and chemotherapy, Howard had completed his treatments and finally had his patient graduation. He rang the victory bell at the end of June. Since then, Howard says he had a great post-treatment appointment. He continues to work with his speech language pathologist and says he's making improvements.

"I guess you get over the hump and you get better. I'm starting to talk better with speech therapy," says Howard. "It's all on a good road."

"Head and neck cancers are good examples of how proton therapy can improve outcomes, tolerance and quality of life after treatments, compared to X-ray radiation," says Dr. Gayar.

The McLaren Proton Therapy Center is the largest proton therapy center in Michigan. Howard says having an advanced cancer treatment option right here in Flint makes the experience a bit easier.

"There's not a lot of travel," he explains. "I'm home every night. I'm glad I made this choice."

Visit mclaren.org/protontherapy to find out more about cancer treatment at the McLaren Proton Therapy Center. Call (855) MY-PROTON to discuss your cancer case further and to schedule a consultation with one of the radiation oncologists.