NASA engineer now approved for proton therapy treatment

NASA engineer who was diagnosed with brain cancer, has received some great news after being denied a treatment that could lower the damage of traditional radiation treatment.

It was October of last year when 34-year-old Derek Willingham suffered a seizure at work and was diagnosed with Oligodendroglioma, a grade 2 tumor. A successful surgery removed 40 percent of the tumor from Derek’s brain, and his doctors from MD Anderson suggested proton therapy to remove the remaining 60 percent. After being denied by their insurance, and having a $100,000 out-of-pocket expense hanging over their heads, the family has finally received the great news, that Derek has been approved for treatment.

Sherry Shaw, Derek Willingham’s mother began her battle with Blue Cross Blue Shield, after Derek was denied proton therapy the first time, after the second denial she had to take matters into her own hands. “I’m a mother of a sensational young man. So, there was no there was no point in delaying or thinking anymore about it I immediately tried to come up with a plan, that’s what I do.”

While Sherry received help from other’s who experienced being denied proton therapy by insurance companies, Derek had to wait for an answer, while facing the mental and physical challenges with his wife Pamela. The couple worrying over medical expenses instead of celebrating their lives as newlyweds. Derek tells FOX 26 News that his life has changed drastically after the surgery . “It takes a long time to read, it takes a long time to write, it takes a long time to talk or to listen.” Derek also relies on family members to drive him everywhere.

Proton therapy is less damaging than traditional radiation treatments. If successful Derek can return back to work as an engineer of NASA. Dr. Steven J. Frank, Medical Director of proton therapy for MD Anderson tells FOX 26  “The unnecessary radiation that can be illuminated with proton therapy appears to be a small amount when we look at the numeric number of 25 gray however that’s equivalent to 12,500 CT scans, or five million dental oral X-rays when prescribed to patients with head and neck cancer.”

All of Sherry’s hard work paid off. Last week, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association decided to re-open Derek’s case, and approved him for Proton Therapy. Sherry Shaw said, "I'm especially grateful to FOX 26 for the speed which with they responded to our initial request, for some attention or some help on this problem. The way it was conducted very professionally and immediately was broadcasts created some momentum that we desperately needed to have that decision revisited and eventually overturned.”

Derek starts treatment on March 5th, and will continue it every day for six weeks, until he can start chemotherapy. As for his mother Sherry, she says she will continue to advocate for those families who encounter problems with getting approval for proton therapy.