Home » Times Union Article 05-26-2013


Terk Radiation Icon

Men waiting for prostate cancer treatment find humor and camaraderie
Waiting area at center gives guys a chance to share their worry

By Matt Soergel

As they wait to be called through the door, the men in the waiting room don't talk much about their disease. It's mostly small talk: family, work, sports. But when they do talk about it, they'll often come around to jokes about the balloon, which during treatment is put you-know-where and then inflated inside you.

Maurice Williams, 69, gets a grin on his face. "John, tell him about some of your experiences," he says.

John Sanders, 66, grimaces. "You mean the balloon"" He shakes his head. He sighs. "And they don't even give you a cigarette afterwards."

The men in the waiting room chuckle. They're all thrown together in this place. They're retired bank vice presidents and railroad workers, therapists and Navy vets. Some hunt and fish. Some play golf and tennis.

"But we're like family here," Williams says. "We all come for one reason."

That reason: prostate cancer, the most common cancer for men. It's highly curable if caught early, but the men inside the waiting room at Riverside Cancer Center will tell you it's still a scary, scary thing to be told you have it inside you.

Nobody should have to go through it alone, they say. And that's where the impromptu family of the waiting room comes in.

The men there go through either 25 or 45 sessions of radiation, depending on the treatment chosen. Fifteen-minute appointments are at the same time every day, so they get to know the people in the time slots near them. As long as nine weeks this goes on, and almost invariably they get to talking, and their camaraderie builds.

"You almost form sort of a support group," says Jeremiah Mitchell, 73, who's come down from Yulee for his two-year checkup, joining the regular crew.


Dr. Terk 2012 Patient's Choice Award
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BRUCE LIPSKY/The Times-Union
Cindy Scholz (left) was dressed to match her husband, Gene, as they wait for him to be called for treatment at the Riverside Cancer Center.


Hours of operation
Patient Area
Radiation Therapy

Riverside Cancer Center Picture
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BRUCE LIPSKY/The Times-Union
Francis Stankiewicz (left) congratulates Justo Aviles on his completion of radiation therapy and bids him farewell at the Riverside Cancer Center.

Riverside Cancer Center Picture
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BRUCE LIPSKY/The Times-Union
Justo Aviles' certificate of completion of radiation therapy is looked over by daughter Marisol Guadalupe. Aviles was diagnosed with prostate cancer three years ago, and his wife and daughter talked him into getting treatment.

Vernie Abando has become part of that group as he accompanies his father, Ben, a native of the Philippines, for his treatment. "Everybody understands each other, what you're going through," he says. "Talking to each other, it makes it easier, for one day."

The people who work at Riverside Cancer Center, on Lomax Street near Five Points, are part of that, too, say the men in the waiting room. Again and again, they say that.

Gene Scholz, 74, is emphatic, waving a finger to make his point: "I don't think it is possible to find a more caring, passionate group than they have here." He goes on in that vein for a while.

Doris Lewis, the office manager, smiles. "Everybody here, we all realize we have a purpose for being here."


The camaraderie " easy small talk among people who know what you're going through " is crucial, says Mitchell Terk, a physician who's director of the center. Men often want to tough things out by themselves, even prostate cancer. But some guys, he says, now come an hour early, just for the company.

The small waiting room is designed to encourage that camaraderie. It's nothing fancy, just some chairs arranged in a semi-circle. But what isn't there is as important as what is. There aren't TVs with noisy commercials, news disasters, medical advice. And there aren't stacks of old magazines about flat abs and sexy bedroom moves.

Instead, it's a place to talk. And joke.

The men in the waiting room joke about the balloon, of course, and also about all the water they have to drink before the treatments, and about all the bathroom breaks they must take. Then there are the hormone injections some receive, which can give them hot flashes and mood swings. Oh yeah, they joke about that.

Even Cindy Scholz, there in the waiting room with her husband, Gene, gets in on it. He's been having hot flashes, just as she did: "I feel like I've been double-dipped." She sits next to him at every appointment, often with her arm interlaced with his, as if to keep him there. He admits he had a tough time handling the diagnosis, and thought about not going through with treatment.

But he's committed now, and, like every other man there, he knows how many days he has to go through, and how many he can cross off his list (on this day, he's at 31 of 45).

Scholz says he's not good with names, but he knows the character of the men who wait with him. He points to the door to the office. "That guy that's back there now, we talk to him every day. Super dude. Really friendly. I know about his kids, his wife."

And on this afternoon, making small talk, Scholz finds out that he and William Staub (11 of 25) share something other than prostate cancer in common: They were both boiler technicians in the Navy.

After some Navy talk, Staub tells how, years ago, he built and flew an ultralight airplane. Flying over the beach, waving at people, practically able to dip his toes in the Atlantic. Flying over the hills of Pennsylvania, and seeing the house he grew up in, the fields where he picked ripe berries. As a kid, that was a long bike ride between the two spots, a grand adventure. From the air, it all looks so close.

He misses flying. He rubs his belly. "If I hadn't gotten so darn fat."

Staub put off his treatment for a year after he was diagnosed. He didn't want to deal with it. But he says that, like just about every man in the waiting room, he read everything he could on the Internet, even though you can't believe everything you see there.

It straightened him up. "As you read about it, all it takes is one cell breaking off, setting up house elsewhere, and that's it," he says.

So he set up his appointments. And he knows what he's going to do once his 25 days are done: He's driving up to Hahira, Ga., where there's a place that makes the best sausages in the world. "I already got it lined up," he says. "I'm gone."


Riverside Cancer Center is a busy spot, starting treatments around 5:30 a.m., going until about 9:30 p.m.

It sees 60 to 65 men a day, almost all there for prostate cancer radiation. It's the most common cancer for men but has a high chance of being cured if you catch it early; a 10-year study shows the medical group's success rate is at 98 percent, Terk says. Still, many men don't get checked, and there are usually no warning signs. So it's the second most fatal cancer for men, behind only lung cancer.

Justo Aviles, 66, a retired sheet metal worker, was diagnosed with the disease three years ago. His wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Marisol Guadalupe, had to talk him into treatment.

"I think it's a male thing," says Guadalupe. "Denial."

They'd been with him at the beginning, and they're with him in the waiting room on a significant morning " day 45 of 45.

Before Aviles is called to go in, though, it's time for Vernie Abando and his father, Ben, to go home. "We will miss you," Abando says. "But we don't want you coming back again." He stands up to hug him. "Have a long life."

Now it's Aviles" time for treatment number 45. Minutes later, he comes out from behind the door, holding up a diploma in triumph. It's something the office staff gives each man on his last day.

Big cheers. Applause. Hugs. Finally, Aviles and his family head for the parking lot. But not before Lewis, the office manager, pops out, arms outspread. "Where you going" she says to him.

So he gives her a hug, too.

matt.soergel@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4082

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