Sunnysider facing down cancer

Proton radiation is helping Melba Fujiura in her fight against lung cancer.

Special to The Daily Sun
Proton radiation is helping Melba Fujiura in her fight against lung cancer.

— Melba Fujiura loves barbecue. She is 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 when she was 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,” she said.

Melba is now a walking, talking example of the value of proton therapy. The Alliance for Proton Therapy Access includes her story on its website.

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.

She was first diagnosed with Stage One lung cancer in 2015. She was quickly wheeled into surgery at University of Washington Medicine, where they cut out a lobe and hoped they got it all. 

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; things seemed hopeless.

Then thoracic surgeon Dr. Michael Mulligan moved into action. 

He reviewed her chart, and recommended a consultation with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center’s Dr. Ramesh Rengan.

“He didn’t mess around. He called Dr. Rengan and got us in that very afternoon, and he gave us a lot of hope,” Melba said. “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 University of Washington Medicine’s low-cost patient housing, and took a free bus to her concurrent chemotherapies. 

A parade of supporters took turns driving Melba to the proton therapy center in north Seattle for her quick daily radiation treatments.

“I feel great now. They are thinking the cancer is all gone, and so far, it looks good,” Melba said. “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,” she said. “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 would not pay for her physician-recommended proton therapy.

Luckily, her care team was able to make arrangements so she could receive treatment, anyway.

So while her cancer battle appear to be over, Melba and her proton center are still wrestling with her insurance company over payment.

However, Melba has no regrets about choosing proton therapy.

“I had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer about the same time, and he went with traditional radiation,” she said. “He had many more side effects than I did. I feel very lucky that Dr. Mulligan recommended proton therapy to me.”

Melba is back to barbecue judging, looking for that perfect combination of tastes that spell satisfaction.

And she’s glad she found the combination of treatments that spell health.

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