Ronald Walker knew he would need more than a routine physical exam when he became a security officer at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Wintersburg.
The Glendale man didn’t realize the exam helped save his life and put him on an innovative path of treatment which could help prostate cancer patients.
“I was only 42 years old,” Walker said of his fateful 2006 visit to the doctor. “I never get sick. I don’t even have allergies. The last thing I thought was that I would have prostate cancer.”
Blood tests during his physical revealed a high PSA count, a tip-off for potential prostate problems. Prostate-specific antigen is a protein produced by the cells of the prostate gland.
While present in small quantities in the serum of men with healthy prostates, PSA is often elevated in the presence of prostate cancer and in other prostate disorders.
Further tests on Walker confirmed he had the early stages of prostate cancer.
The Washington native then climbed aboard a medical roller coaster, riding the wave of hope and disappointment as various treatments provided short-lived success.
Walker first underwent a surgical procedure known as a prostectomy, the surgical removal of all or part of the prostate gland.
Walker showed positive signs of recovery for about a year until tests revealed a relapse.
That was followed by radiation and hormone therapy, all of which failed to provide a permanent solution.
“You go through a myriad of emotions and sometimes you get mad,” Walker said of the failed treatments. “Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a great support group of family and medical professionals.”
The family support consists of his wife, Carolyne Clark-Walker, who keeps track of all of his appointments, his two daughters, Isra, 16 and Dementra, 15, as well as his parents, who happen to be his next-door neighbors in Glendale.
For medical advice, Walker relied on Dr. Amol Rakkar, an internal medical physician at Palo Verde Hermatology Oncology in Glendale.
Rakkar wanted to avoid chemotherapy and decided last October to introduce Walker to an immunotherapy designed to stimulate a patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer.
“Ronald did not have many symptoms of prostate cancer, which made him a perfect candidate to try this new treatment,” Rakkar said. Walker became the first man in the Southwest to be treated with Provenge, the first FDA-approved immunotherapy for prostate cancer.
Walker’s immunotherapy treatment consisted of a three-step process.
First, he traveled to Southern California, where technicians performed a procedure to extract some of his white-blood cells.
The blood product was then shipped to a New Jersey lab, where it was incubated with antigens and other proteins.
The final step returned the formula to Arizona, where it was reinfused into Walker’s body.
“It’s like I have super cells in my body that help me fight off the cancer,” Walker said.
Clinical studies have shown men with prostate cancer who have used the immunotherapy have a longer life expectancy. The only reported side effects are possbile chills, fever, nausea and headaches, which usually occur within the first few days of treatment.
Walker had a short-lived 102-degree fever soon after his treatment.
Rakkar said researchers still aren’t sure why the immunotherapy works so well although extensive testing has confirmed its success.
The doctor added that Walker’s age did not have an impact on his eligibility for the treatment, which could be helpful for older men with prostate cancer. Most men do not get tested for prostate cancer until age 50.
In addition to the side effects, the other downside of the immunotherapy is the cost.
Walker’s one-time treatment was $93,000. Fortunately, his private insurance covered the procedure, which also has been approved for Medicare and Medicaid patients.
Walker said he doesn’t care why it works.
He said he just hopes it works long enough until the next treatment or cure comes along.
“I think it helps that I have a positive outlook and attitude,” Walker said. “I can’t think about not being there for my kids because if I started to think about that, I would just lose it and it would all turn to chaos.”
Walker’s Father’s Day weekend will be spent with his family, including a possible drive with his daughter, who just obtained her learner’s permit.
“I look forward to being there for all of the significant events in their lives,” Walker said.