Osceola County Army Veteran Treated for Cancer with Proton Therapy After Medical Emergency at Country Music Festival in Michigan

Proton Therapy Cancer Treatments Covered by Veteran Benefits

Author: Jasmine Brown

Robert Brown Traveling

“I called them [the VA] and told them that I was getting a referral for proton therapy, and they hooked everything up. It was simple and went smooth.”

It was going to be another great three-day weekend for then-27-year-old Army Veteran Robert Brown, who was with friends at a popular country music festival in Michigan, but as soon as they got to the campsite, Brown passed out. His friends quickly called 911.

“They thought I had too much to drink, even though that didn’t make sense as we had just gotten there, so they didn’t know what was wrong with me,” said Brown, recalling the 2019 medical emergency.

Brown was taken to an emergency department in Jackson, and while he remained unconscious a CAT scan and MRI were performed. That’s when doctors found a tumor. He was diagnosed with skull-base chondrosarcoma, a bone cancer.

Brown works on oil rigs in North Dakota two weeks out of the month. Shortly before the festival, he said he fainted multiple times while at work. He thought he was just tired and working too many hours. But now he knows that the diagnosis explained those episodes.

“I didn’t even know I had cancer,” said Brown. “You couldn’t even tell because it [the tumor] was inside of my head and skull. If that [a coma] wouldn’t have ever happened, I wouldn’t have even known.”

Over time, the tumor grew, and it caused changes on the right side of his face, affecting his eye and mouth.

In December of 2020, Brown underwent surgery to remove the tumor. During recovery, “I had to learn how to walk, talk - pretty much learn how to do everything again,” he said.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it can be difficult to treat chondrosarcomas, and specifically, it can be difficult to remove the entire tumor through surgery. If the tumor is difficult to remove entirely, radiation can be an option, but killing the cells would require higher doses. With proton beam therapy, radiation oncologists can deliver radiation in higher doses to the tumor, while sparing surrounding healthy tissues.

“My neurosurgeon, who did the surgery, said I should try [proton therapy],” explained Brown. “He said that it’s a newer treatment and it would be a good idea because I’m young.”

Brown was referred to the McLaren Proton Therapy Center in Flint and began his treatments in 2021.

“This type of tumor is always a challenge to irradiate. Tumors in the base of skull are next to so many important nerves and organs, like the brainstem, the nerves of sight, the nerves of hearing, and the pituitary gland,” explained his radiation oncologist at the McLaren Proton Therapy Center, Christian Hyde, MD, DABR.

“The tumor needs to get a high dose of radiation to be controlled, but without damaging too much healthy brain tissue.  Proton therapy helped make that possible in Robert’s case.”

Robert Brown Surgery Scar

Proton therapy specialists can stop the proton beam at the depth of the tumor. This significantly decreases the amount of radiation that may spill over into nearby organs. In turn, patients may experience minimal side effects and a better quality of life after cancer treatment, compared to treating the disease with conventional radiation therapy. With traditional radiation treatments, there is an exit dose, meaning the X-rays continue to travel past the tumor, through the body while exposing healthy tissues, and exit on the other side.

With proton therapy being one of the newest and most advanced cancer treatment options available, many people, including veterans, often wonder if the treatment is covered by insurance. For veterans who are receiving Veteran Affairs (VA) health care benefits, that answer is often yes.

That’s exactly how Brown covered his proton therapy treatments. He says he did not receive pushback from the VA.

“I just talked to them once and they approved it,” said Brown. “I called them and told them that I was getting a referral for proton therapy, and they hooked everything up. It was simple and went smooth.”

A few scenarios in which the Veterans Health Administration may consider covering proton therapy is when certain cancers require re-treatment (or re-irradiation), when minimizing a patient’s overall radiation dose is crucial for their health during and after treatment, and when a Veteran may be participating in an approved clinical trial.

“Skull base tumors are rare, and so are childhood cancers and re-irradiation.  These are some of the most obvious cases where we need proton therapy, but it also works well for many other cancers that are much more common, such as breast, lung, brain, and prostate,” according to Dr. Hyde.  “We have a lot of clinical trials going on to see which patients will benefit most from this new technology.”

Not only was it a smooth process to receive coverage of proton therapy treatments by the VA – Brown says the treatment itself was simple.

“It was easy going there [to the McLaren Proton Therapy Center], lay there for a little bit, and I was done,” said Brown. “I had little side effects. Sometimes I’d be tired, but that was about it.”

After 40 treatment sessions, Brown finished in July 2021. Since then, his physicians have not seen signs of cancer.

“I was impressed at how well Robert did during proton therapy,” said Dr. Hyde. “I really like how Robert’s recovery is going.  At first, he was feeling rather down about the function he had lost, but by the time he was done with treatment, his mood had changed.  He seemed to have hope again.  I credit part of that to our excellent team of proton therapists. They are some of the most caring people I know.”

Now that Brown’s cancer treatment has ended, he’s focusing on getting his eyesight fixed and continuing to go through therapy.

“Right now, my eye hasn’t fully healed. I still see double. I just had an eye doctor appointment, and everything looks good. I’ll have surgery on my eye, soon,” Brown said. “I still have weakness on the right side of my face where they did surgery and I still have to go through therapy for my mouth.”

Despite his continued recovery, Brown doesn’t plan on missing anymore country music festival weekends. In fact, he was feeling well enough during his proton therapy treatments in July 2021 to attend the festival. The now 30-year-old is putting his focus on his therapy so that he can get back to work, and of course attend the festival in 2022.

Robert Brown 1 Year After Surgery

For more information about VA health care coverage for proton therapy and to schedule a consultation for a second opinion, visit mclaren.org/proton_veteran.