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Proton Therapy and Barbecue: My Recipe for Beating Cancer and Being Myself

Going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment is so difficult. Thanks to my care team suggesting proton therapy, I never felt like my life became consumed by my lung cancer diagnosis.
BY Melba Fujiura
PUBLISHED April 01, 2019
The word "barbecue" might make you think of ribs or pulled pork, Kansas City or Memphis-style. But when I hear the word, what I think of is passion and community.

For 10 years, I've participated in barbecue competitions throughout Washington state. In fact, I'm a registered member of the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association (PNWBA), which organizes competitions from Canada to California. I started off as a competitor with my husband, but we quickly grew curious about what makes winning barbecue. It didn't take long for us to discover how much fun it was to judge!

But when I was diagnosed with a recurrence of lung cancer in 2016, I was afraid that I'd have to give it all up. I can still recall the anxiety and fear I experienced when I learned my cancer had returned. During my first battle with lung cancer, my physicians were able to remove the tumor through surgery. A series of tests showed that surgery wasn't an option this time around. My thoracic surgeon recommended a treatment I had never heard of: proton radiation therapy. This precise form of radiation targets the cancerous tumor and spares healthy tissues that surround it. For me, that meant protecting my heart, lungs, esophagus, and spinal cord from excess radiation exposure.

Thankfully, life never skipped a beat during treatment. Minimal side effects meant everyday life and my passion for brisket and the community I had become a part of would not need to take a backseat to cancer treatment. When I tell my story to others, many people have never heard of proton therapy and didn't know that it can be a better alternative to traditional radiation.

Proton therapy isn't right for every cancer patient but for certain types of cancer, it is an option worth considering. I'm certainly motivated by my positive experience to try to encourage cancer patients to learn about proton therapy and ask their doctors about it.

I felt little more than fatigue throughout my proton therapy treatment. Sessions lasted mere minutes-- it took longer to change my clothes! I was at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center every day for six weeks, so I got to know the doctors, nurses and staff pretty well. They understood what was most important to me and helped me in ways I couldn't have expected.

One Saturday, I had a proton treatment scheduled in the morning. When I realized that there was a barbecue competition happening nearby that same day, I signed up to judge. Balancing the two was no problem-- my team made sure of that! I can proudly say that to date, I've judged 45 barbecue competitions, and judging has led to opportunities I could never have imagined.

One of my biggest feats was being named the 2017 PNWBA Judge of the Year along with my husband. It was an accomplishment that I'll never forget and one that I was proud to celebrate nearly a year after beating cancer. And my husband and I have become master judges!

I doubt anyone would say that cancer treatment is a positive experience. Going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment is so difficult. I just feel grateful to my care team for suggesting proton therapy and then helping me live my best life even during treatment. I never felt like my life became consumed by my lung cancer diagnosis. Thankfully, I was able to remain Melba Fujiura: wife, friend, barbecue enthusiast-- and now, cancer survivor.
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