Physicist mentors young cancer patient in medical career

MD Anderson Cancer Center
Date: 08/27/2012


Lisa Garvin: Welcome to Cancer Newsline: a podcast series from the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Cancer Newsline helps you stay current with the news on cancer research, diagnosis, treatment and prevention, providing the latest information on reducing your family's cancer risk. I'm your host, Lisa Garvin. And today we have 2 guests in the studio. We have 18 year old Shane Leonard [phonetic] from Colorado Springs, Colorado: a just graduated senior and a cancer survivor, and Richard Amos [phonetic] who is a physicist in M.D. Anderson's Proton Therapy Center. Now these 2 young men -- I'm calling you young men. [Laughter]

Richard Amos:  Thank you.

Lisa Garvin: Mr. Amos, if that's okay? You forged a relationship during Shane's cancer treatment. Shane, tell us how you came to M.D. Anderson.

Shane Leonard: Okay, I was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago and it was in April. And I was -- it was a salivary gland cancer. So I had surgery in Denver to remove the tumor and then my doctors decided that I needed further treatment. And so we were looking at radiation treatment and so we researched proton therapy. And it became clear that M.D. Anderson was going to be the best treatment available for me. So we traveled -- we stayed here over this last summer. And I received treatment over the whole summer.

Lisa Garvin: Tell us about your treatment experience. Did you -- was it just the radiation that you had or did you have other therapies as well?

Shane Leonard: I just had radiation but it was for -- how many treatments did I have? I had...Thirty-three. Yeah, so -- yeah I had 33 radiation treatments over the course of several weeks.

Lisa Garvin: And how are you now?

Shane Leonard: I'm good.

Lisa Garvin: Okay.

Shane Leonard
: I'm very good, yes.

Lisa Garvin: And I guess you're a budding physicist so you already kind of had an interest in physics and so forth before you came to us?

Shane Leonard: Yes, I've always been very interested in math and physics. So I've always looked for opportunities to teach myself when I can or to learn as much as I can because that's really the interest that I have for a career.

Lisa Garvin: And it sounds like you -- you have an internship set up for physics research but you had to delay that because of your cancer.

Shane Leonard: Yes, I had applied for it when I hadn't been diagnosed yet and I got this internship and it was going to be over the summer but because of my treatment I had to just turn down the internship and come be treated here.

Lisa Garvin: And how did you meet Mr. Amos?

Shane Leonard: We were at -- I was getting treated one day and we saw this sign that said -- it was advertising a lecture given by Mr. Amos and it was the physics behind the proton beam. And so that was really interesting to me. So I wanted to see that lecture. But we ended up -- we couldn't see the lecture because we had other stuff going on. And so then later on I was talking to one our friends from the marketing department and she introduced me to Mr. Amos. So that's how everything got started.

Lisa Garvin: And Mr. Amos, it's probably been pretty rare that your patients are interested in the science behind their treatment so this must have been kind of refreshing?

Richard Amos
: Very refreshing. It's quite -- it's quite unusual for somebody to really be that interested in the physics behind what goes on in radiation oncology. So it was a refreshing opportunity for me to share my enthusiasm with somebody who's like minded.

Lisa Garvin: So he missed your lecture but apparently you must have filled him in as your relationship grew.

Richard Amos: Yeah, we spent a whole day together and I discussed some of the physics behind the treatment -- his own treatment, treatments in general, the equipment that's used for radiation therapy particularly proton therapy, and then we discussed other applications of some future developments, how they could be applicable to cancer treatment and research in the future.

Lisa Garvin: Now and we're getting into basics that you know a lot of people don't realize - and Shane you probably do - but it all starts in a can of hydrogen atoms about as big as a coffee can.

Richard Amos: That's right.

Lisa Garvin: So and then -- so kind of walk us through the -- that process.

Richard Amos: Exactly right. There's a very small canister of hydrogen gas from which you can extract protons through a fairly simple process. And then using magnetic -- well electric fields, you can accelerate the protons up to a high speed and then you can steer the protons along what we call a beam [phonetic] line which will take them from the origin to whatever room the patient's being treated. They'll be steered round into the room and right exactly into the what we call the nozzle where the beam emerges and treats the patient. And we accelerate the protons up to a speed where we know how far they will penetrate into the patient. And they will stop at a certain depth in the patient -- the depth of the tumor.

Lisa Garvin:
What they call the Bragg peak.

Richard Amos: They call it the Bragg peak and that's the point where the maximum amount of energy is deposited from the protons to the patient's tissue and that energy destroys the cancer cells in the tumor.

Lisa Garvin: So was he an avid student?

Richard Amos:
Very much so.

Lisa Garvin: And do -- are people allowed to see the accelerator and the...

Richard Amos: I mean you need to know somebody at the top.

Lisa Garvin:
Okay. [Laughter] So what was this -- did you study radiation therapy at all? Did you know much about it before you and Mr. Amos hooked up?

Shane Leonard: No, I just knew the basics of I guess electric magnetic fields and protons and -- but I didn't know anything about the actual way the treatment was set up. So that was really a cool experience to see how it all worked and see how the physics of it actually made it a better treatment for me versus a conventional type of radiation because of the Bragg peak and the different unique properties of the proton treatment.

Lisa Garvin: So how did your relationship grow? Obviously you had the tour and everything but do you all still correspond and...

Shane Leonard: Yeah. So yeah we've been keeping in touch through email and I've kept Mr. Amos up to date with all of my college applications and admissions process and all of that. And he's kept sending me cool things to read and study and just -- we've just kept in touch that way.

Lisa Garvin: So it sounds like both your cancer experience and your relationship with Mr. Amos kind of lit a fire somewhere?

Shane Leonard: Yeah, it definitely did and it's helped me I guess solidify my career goals and I know that I'm definitely interested in a career in physics because of this. And it's just -- it's really encouraged me in a lot of different ways, especially through my treatment. It was a very positive experience.

Lisa Garvin: And Mr. Amos, a lot of people don't know what a radiation physicist is. What is it that you do exactly?

Richard Amos: Our background is in physics and then we train specifically at graduate level in radiation physics. And then clinically train for application in medicine. And then on a daily basis we're responsible for overseeing the design of all treatment plans, making sure that the amount of dose that's been prescribed by a physician is actually safely delivered to the patient. I always try to -- if anybody ever asks me what a physicist does at a party which they never do of course -- that's just part of the [inaudible]. But I always try to explain to them that a physician when they prescribe a drug, the pharmacist is really the scientist that understands how to get the right about of chemistry into that pill. And the responsibility of a radiation physicist in medicine is sort of similar. It's quite complicated how you actually deliver a physician's prescription accurately. So we sort of take responsibility for that. That also involves very detailed understanding and calibration of all the equipment that's used to treat patients.

Lisa Garvin: Is it -- is your field -- are there a lot of people coming up in your field or is it a field that really needs more graduates to get into?

Richard Amos: It's a very popular field now.

Lisa Garvin: Oh good.

Richard Amos: It's -- but also we have a large demand also so that both the supply and demand are moving up because radiation oncology in particular is probably becoming one of the most complicated fields in medicine. Technology -- in the 15 years - even though you said I was young, thanks - in the 15 years that I've been working in this field, I've seen technology just escalate at a rapid rate. And that requires a great number of physicists involved in radiation oncology.

Lisa Garvin: Do you ever get a chance to mentor young people like Shane?

Richard Amos: Not often. I mean I mentor people that are students in the field. We have our own graduate students. We have our own fellows and the like. But it is actually refreshing to mentor somebody at Shane's level because he clearly has a natural ability, he's interested and who knows what somebody like he could do.

Lisa Garvin: So Shane, you've been accepted to Stanford University and you're going to be majoring in physics. Where do you hope to -- what do you hope to study and where do you hope to take that professionally?

Shane Leonard: I actually hope to study material science and engineering because I'm really interested in the nano technology that's emerging and I think it has a lot of applications in the biological fields like oncology. So it will be interesting to see where a career like that will take me because that's very involved with physics and I also want to be doing something that would be giving back to people like this so.

Lisa Garvin: So you do want to work in the oncology field or medicine?

Shane Leonard: Maybe not necessarily in the medicine area of oncology but it's definitely on my radar. So I'm looking at that as a potential option for where I want to go.

Lisa Garvin:
Because nano technology is having increasing prominence in the cancer field. And let's talk about nano technology. It's the use of very, very tiny particles. Well, go ahead and explain it.

Shane Leonard: Okay, well it's materials that have properties that come from the structure on a very, very small scale like the molecular scale. So it can actually be a large material but the properties that it gets are because of the very, very minute properties of it. So for instance like graphing which is becoming very popular area of research right now. So and then one of the things that interests me recently was there's actually a girl about my age who published -- or actually I'm not sure if she published a paper but she conducted research at Stanford recently with nano technology that was directly involved with cancer research and it showed very promising results for cancer treatment.

Lisa Garvin: Do you feel like your cancer journey and your meeting Mr. Amos kind of maybe honed your career path a little bit?

Shane Leonard: Definitely and I think it's been a positive form of honing that perspective of been -- because of this I've become more interested in physics and in a possible career in medicine and oncology.

Lisa Garvin:
And I guess Mr. Amos you're going to keep track of him and hope to - you know - recruit him at some later date?

Richard Amos: Exactly, or he's going to recruit me. Either way around, one of us is getting recruited. [Laughter]

Lisa Garvin:
But it sounds like a growing field...

Richard Amos:

Lisa Garvin: you said. You know, it looks like you're really looking out for people. And of course we hear it all the time that kids - you know - kids aren't -- they're not getting the math skills, they're not getting the science skills. Are you seeing a turnaround in that maybe? Or...

Richard Amos:
I would like to think so. I think Shane is more an exception than the norm. Certainly it's good -- it's nice to see somebody with a math-physics background and interest directing that skill set possibly towards the biomedical research field. And I think biomedical research may be of interest to more people and they could be -- this kind of exposure could make kids realize that actually math and physics can also be applicable to that field: not just biology, not just the easier sciences like that.
[ Laughter ]

Lisa Garvin:
Well thank you both. I'm glad that y'all became friends and mentor and menthe [phonetic] and I hope your relationship continues. Congratulations and good luck to you Shane.

Shane Leonard: Thank you.

Lisa Garvin: And Mr. Amos, we'll see you at the PTC.

Richard Amos:

Lisa Garvin: Thank you both. If you have questions about anything you've heard today on Cancer Newsline, contact Ask M.D. Anderson at 1-877-mda-6789 or online at Thank you for listening to this episode of Cancer Newsline. Tune in for the next podcast in our series.