Detroit Veteran and Retired Firefighter Finishes Proton Therapy Treatments for Prostate Cancer, Despite Heartbreaking Loss

He Believes His Son was Cheering Him On As He Finished Proton Therapy Treatments

Author: Jasmine Brown

William Johnson receiving proton therapy treatments at McLaren Proton Therapy Center.

 


"I decided to be proactive and began researching the most recent treatments for cancer."

2020 was more than just the start of the COVID-19 pandemic for William Johnson of Detroit, Michigan. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“It was horrible. No one wants to hear the ‘c’ word,” said William. “I’m glad they caught it early because I didn’t have any symptoms.”

Other than having to use the restroom often, he had no idea he had cancer. If it was not for his regular prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening, the cancer may not have been caught in the early stages. After his screening revealed a high PSA level, he received a biopsy that came back positive.

As a Vietnam Veteran, William receives medical care at his local Veterans Health Administration Medical Center (VA).

“They wanted to do surgery, but I didn’t want that,” explained William. “Of course, surgery would have been a quick treatment, but there were going to be side effects. I would have experienced side effects with chemotherapy, too. I decided to be proactive and began researching the most recent treatments for cancer.”

William came across proton therapy and decided to talk to his doctor about the option. He also brought the idea to his sons and discussed how the treatment works. Soon, he began treatments at the McLaren Proton Therapy Center in Flint, Michigan.

William Johnson, Vietnam ,1967.

“I decided to drive an hour there and back each day. It took longer to get there and go home than the treatments, which were around 30 minutes. It didn’t hurt. No hair loss, no soreness, and no tiredness.”

“Mr. Johnson had intermediate-risk prostate cancer,” explained Hesham Gayar, MD, medical director of the McLaren Proton Therapy Center. “He made a good choice with proton therapy. It was the best outcome and resulted in less side effects compared to other options because the protons are precisely focused and stop at the target, sparing healthy tissues unnecessary radiation and side effects.”

Though he felt physically well, he was not prepared for another life-changing event during his treatment process. William is a retired Detroit firefighter. His service as a fireman was something he passed on to his sons. During his treatment at the McLaren Proton Therapy Center, he had to unexpectedly say goodbye to one of them, Sergeant Sivad Johnson, who died a hero.

Sgt. Sivad Johnson, William Johnson's Son

“He lost his life trying to save some girls who were drowning in the Detroit River at Belle Isle Beach,” explained William. “We were supposed to celebrate the end of treatment with me ringing the bell, as well as his birthday on September 5, but he passed before then.”

Though the pain of losing his son was present, William pressed on and continued his treatment plan. Something he said he didn’t think he could have done without the staff at the Proton Center.

“They were really supportive when they found out my son passed. I could feel they were upset about it and they gave their condolences.”

William says the nine weeks of treatment went by faster than he thought.

“Before starting, I thought, ‘That’s a long time to go through treatment,’” said William. “When you look at treatment versus side effects, this was the best choice for me. I’ve been cancer-free ever since.

I like the staff here. I’d come in, we’d joke, and I’d go through treatment. We enjoyed ringing the bell at the end of my treatment. It was a good experience. I wish my son was here for that – I think he’s happy that I finished treatments.”

For more information about proton therapy for Veterans, visit mclaren.org/protonforveterans.