Gov. Fallin signs Rep. Marian Cooksey’s proposal boosting Proton Therapy

OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Mary Fallin has signed into law a measure that will help Oklahoma cancer patients receive the physician-ordered radiation treatments needed for their recovery and long-term health.

Cancer patients and advocates of proton therapy, including Ricky Conley and Dr. Les Yonemoto, celebrated the signing of House Bill 1515 at a ceremonial bill signing held June 10 at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City.

Advocates say House Bill 1515 will keep insurance companies from holding proton therapy to a higher standard of testing than other forms of radiation and help Oklahoma cancer patients receive the doctor-recommended treatments they need.

In final consideration, H.B. 1515 by Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee
and Rep. Marian Cooksey, R-Edmond, was approved overwhelmingly — by a 36-9 vote in the Senate, 36-9, and unanimously in the House, 97-0.

With the signing of this bill, advocates assert, Oklahoma cancer patients will be able to focus on their battle with cancer, rather than spending energy fighting insurance coverage denials because proton therapy is held to a higher standard of testing than other forms of radiation therapy.
“We are so grateful to our state’s legislators for recognizing that this problem affects thousands of Oklahoman’s and for taking action so other cancer patients like me can get insurance coverage for the radiation treatment they need to survive and live well,” said Ricky Conley, 59-year-old head and neck cancer survivor from Edmond.

When Conley was first diagnosed with cancer in his left cheek, he received traditional radiation therapy which unnecessarily exposed nearby healthy tissues to damaging radiation causing a secondary tumor. 

When he had to battle cancer again, he refused to get traditional radiation and was willing to fight his insurance company for proton therapy.

“The first time around, the treatment not only destroyed the tumor in my jaw, but also my salivary glands, to the point I couldn’t even swallow water after treatment,” said Conley. “The damage is permanent, and I had to learn how to eat and drink all over again. 

When they found the second tumor in my jaw, I knew I couldn’t go through that again.”

Conley’s physician recommended he undergo proton therapy radiation for a higher quality of life during and after treatment.

“Proton therapy is an ideal type of radiation treatment for patients like Ricky who have cancerous tissues near other critical structures, like salivary glands and the esophagus in his case,” said Dr. Les Yonemoto, radiation oncologist. “We are able to precisely target the protons to attack the cancerous tissues while sparing the surrounding healthy tissue from radiation and lowering the risk of short- and long-term side effects.”

Unlike traditional radiation, the proton therapy allowed Conley to swallow and eat normally throughout treatment, as well as continue working every day. 

“Having been through both traditional radiation and proton therapy, I can say that proton therapy causes fewer problems for the patient. If I had proton therapy the first time, I don’t think I would have had the problems with swallowing, and I might not have had the second tumor at all,” said Conley. “This is why it’s so important for a law like this to exist – to protect other cancer patients in the state whose well being can be spared.”

Oklahoma is now considered to be on the cutting edge of cancer treatment, research and technology with one of the nation’s 13 proton therapy centers located here and another in construction.

Proponents contend this bill will level the playing field for all radiation cancer treatments in Oklahoma and help Oklahoma cancer patients receive the doctor-recommended cancer treatments they need.

In sum, advocates of the new law say Proton therapy is an alternative to traditional radiation therapy that more precisely targets tumors and spares the surrounding healthy tissue from unnecessary radiation exposure. 

Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1988, proton therapy is equally as effective in destroying tumors as traditional x-ray treatment, its advocates (including many physicians) contend. 

They also believe the precision means fewer short and long-term side effects for patients.

“It’s not right for cancer patients to have to fight for the treatment that is the best option for their specific case, especially when their doctor recommends the treatment for them – and I sincerely thank Gov. Fallin and our other elected officials for supporting this bill,” said Conley.

NOTE: Editor Pat McGuigan contributed to this report.