“Upon my diagnosis, I had one mission: to fight this cancer with everything I had. Little did I know, not only would I be waging a war on cancer, I would be battling my insurance company in order to access proton therapy and save my own life.”
Melba Fujiura loves barbeque. Not only is she a member of the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association, which sanctions competitions from Canada to California, she’s also taken classes to become a certified barbecue judge. Even while undergoing proton radiation treatments for lung cancer, she managed to squeeze in time to judge a competition, using her taste buds and expertise to find some of the best barbecue in the region.
“It was a Saturday; I had a proton treatment in the morning, then ran off to judge a competition in Stanwood that afternoon.”
Like good barbecue is a combination of heat, sweet, tang and smoke, Melba’s patient journey has been a combination of hope, fear, determination and support.
The Sunnyside, Washington, resident was first diagnosed with stage one lung cancer in 2015. She was quickly wheeled into surgery at UW Medicine, where they cut out a lobe and hoped they got it all. But a year later, during one of her quarterly checkups, more cancer was found. Again, she was scheduled for surgery, but further tests showed she was not a good candidate for that treatment. Despair set in; was it hopeless?
Her UW Medicine thoracic surgeon, Dr. Michael Mulligan, moved into action. He reviewed her chart, and recommended a consultation with SCCA Proton Therapy Center’s Dr. Ramesh Rengan to see if proton therapy would be a good option.
“He didn’t mess around—he called Dr. Rengan and got us in that very afternoon, and he gave us a lot of hope. It was a blessing he saw us so fast so we didn’t have to spend time worrying unnecessarily.”
For the six weeks of daily proton therapy treatments, Melba bunked at UW Medicine’s low cost patient housing, and took UW’s free bus to her concurrent chemo treatments. A parade of supporters took turns driving her to the proton therapy center in north Seattle for her quick daily radiation treatments.
How is she doing today? “I feel great now. They are thinking the cancer is all gone, and so far, it looks good. And I had few side effects; the chemo caused neuralgia and hair loss, but the only side effect from the proton therapy was some fatigue.“
Regarding her experience at the proton center, Melba has only positive things to say: “I couldn’t have asked for better treatment, you could tell they really cared. If you go to a doctor, it’s really disheartening if they don’t care, or if they act like you’re just another number. But at the proton therapy center, they were kind, got to know my whole family, and made the treatments a breeze. It took longer to change my clothes than to get the treatments!”
Unfortunately, Melba’s insurance outright denied paying for her physician recommended proton therapy. Luckily, her care team was able to make arrangements so she could receive treatment as her survival, health and well-being were the most important factors in choosing proton therapy. So while her cancer battle is over, Melba and her proton center are still wrestling with her insurance company over payment.
However, Melba has zero regrets about choosing proton therapy. “I had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer about the same time, and he went with traditional radiation. He had many more side effects than I did. I feel very lucky that Dr. Mulligan recommended proton therapy to me.”
She’s back to barbecue judging, looking for that perfect combination of tastes that spell satisfaction, and is glad she found the combination of treatments that spell health.