Joe Buck has devoted his life to education and learning. For nearly 40 years, he was an administrator at Armstrong Atlantic State University. After retiring, he became school board president for the Savannah/Chatham County Board of Education. Recently, Buck had to learn something completely new – how to fight cancer.
Buck’s cancer journey began in 2009. He felt healthy and strong. He exercised every day and never saw a doctor. His wife, Marilyn, is a nurse and urged him for months to get a physical. Buck finally relented and made an appointment in May 2009.
The physical showed that his prostate specific antigen (PSA) level was slightly elevated. His doctor ordered a second test, which again showed elevated PSA levels. Next, his doctor ordered a biopsy. When the results came back, Buck was stunned to learn that he had prostate cancer.
He immediately contacted his longtime friend, John Duttenhaver, M.D., a radiation oncologist at the Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute (ACI) at Memorial University Medical Center. Buck’s cancer was in its early stages, and Duttenhaver recommended a series of radiation treatments. The two men were sitting in Duttenhaver’s office discussing treatment options, when Buck received a phone call with more disturbing news.
“I had had a CT scan earlier that day at Memorial, and they were already calling me with the results. They said I had three aortic aneurysms in my lower abdomen that had to be repaired,” says Buck.
An aneurysm occurs when the vessel that carries blood out of the heart weakens and bulges. If an aneurysm bursts, it can cause massive internal bleeding and death. Buck’s cancer treatment was suddenly put on hold while doctors made plans to repair the aneurysms. He endured a six-and-a-half hour vascular surgery and had 35 staples in his abdomen.
In early September, just three days after the staples were removed, Buck began his cancer treatments at the ACI.
“When I walked through the doors at Memorial and they put that patient armband on me…it will stay in my memory always. I realized I had joined part of a group that I didn’t want to be part of, but I didn’t have any choice,” says Buck.
Every Monday through Friday for five weeks, he went to the ACI for radiation treatment – 25 treatments in all. Duttenhaver and his team used the Trilogy linear accelerator to deliver the treatments. Trilogy can recognize and adjust for minute anatomical changes caused by a patient’s breathing. The machine takes these changes into account when delivering a high-dose, yet extremely precise beam of radiation directly into the tumor. The treatment was killing Buck’s cancer, but it was also stressing the rest of his body.
“By the third week, I felt really bad. I had major stomach upheaval and fatigue. It was very difficult. The fatigue was unlike anything I had ever experienced before,” says Buck. Despite the challenges, he remained optimistic.
“Every day in the lobby at the ACI, I would see people who were losing their hair, or who had to wheel I.V. pumps with them. I knew there were people who were much sicker than me, and I did what I could to stay upbeat and help those people feel better,” says Buck. They were all going through something together, something that affects way too many lives.
As a lifelong educator, Buck made it his mission to teach other men about prostate cancer and encourage them to get annual screenings.
“I thought, if one person could learn from me and have his life saved, then it was important,” says Buck.
He shared his story on the social networking site, Facebook. He later heard from a man who had been president of the student body at Armstrong in the 1960s. After reading Buck’s Facebook story, the man had a checkup and learned that he also had prostate cancer. Buck had made a difference and possibly saved a life.
After his 25th and final external radiation treatment, Buck danced in the ACI doorway on his way out. His journey was nearing completion. He had a 10-day break and then had 90 internal radiation seeds implanted in his body to kill any remaining cancer cells. The treatment was successful and Buck is cancer-free today. He says he was extremely impressed by the people, technology, and service he received at the ACI.
“I know people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer and have left Savannah for treatment. I can’t imagine why you’d do that. I was surrounded by a network of people I knew here in Savannah. I would not go anyplace else for treatment.”
Buck continues to exercise daily, lead the school board, and spread the word about the importance of prostate cancer screening. He wants men everywhere to realize the importance of annual exams, early intervention, and leading-edge treatment.