By Kayle Waterhouse
Ron Rivera was on his way to work from the dentist. The coach of the Washington Football Team is a year out from his squamous cell carcinoma diagnosis, cancer in a lymph node in his neck. Coach Rivera was in his car when SurvivorNet spoke to him just before the beginning of training camp. Cancer treatment can cause problems for the teeth, but Rivera’s doctors says he’s doing great.Read More
The long, grueling pressure cooker that is the NFL season is one game longer this year, and there is also the added layer of what to do about unvaccinated players, with local media reporting that about 85% of the Washington team is vaccinated. That means a cancer survivor like Rivera has to be even more careful on the job, and this is a guy who coached straight through radiation treatment.
“I really battled to continue to work and to coach, and that was important to me as far as my mindset was concerned in terms of rehab, try to get ready to go. I think [coaching] really kind of helped me focus through,” Rivera says.
Since the start of training camp, Rivera has said he’s disappointed that more of his players are not vaccinated. Though, last year, his players rallied around their coach in a big way.
Rivera recalls one play last year “when we played Pittsburgh, at one point in the first half I got a wild, crazy notion that, hey, you know what, we need to go forward here. And, we did, and unfortunately it didn’t work, and we are backed up. And I went into the locker room and what I said to the defensive players is, ‘Hey guys, that was my mistake. I made a bad decision.’ And it’s kind of cool when you have a player step up and say, ‘Coach, that’s good, man. We got your back.'”
Rivera went through a draining series of treatments using a form of radiation called proton therapy, which uses extremely expensive machines to generate a beam that leaves less residual damage to the body, and in some instances, and in some kinds of cancers, the results are better than with conventional radiation.
Despite this year’s vaccination issues, Rivera told us that last season his players had a really interesting reaction to his illness, as many of them went through their own injuries and the stress of the season. Rivera recalls a couple players approaching him and saying “watching you and seeing you and knowing that every day you were going through treatment, it really just kind of made me realize that the strains and stresses of practice are nothing compared to what you were going through.”
Rivera and Proton Therapy
Proton therapy works best for patients whose cancer has not yet spread to other parts of the body. The biggest advantage of this kind of radiation is that it minimizes damage to healthy cells because the protons stop at the target (cancer cells), as opposed to x-rays that continue to pass through the body and leave an exit dose.
When he was first diagnosed, Rivera had a scan to not only help map out where his cancer was located in his body, but also to decide which type of treatment he would need to receive. The scan came back, and Rivera was fortunate to learn that his cancer was concentrated in his neck. “The radiologist was really pleased,” says Rivera, as proton therapy was a now viable option as opposed to photon therapy.
However, there is some debate about whether proton therapy is really necessary given its cost and its limited availability in large swaths of the country.
Traditional x-ray therapy and the newer proton therapy are both types of radiation. They destroy cancer cells by damaging their DNA. So what makes them different?
X-rays are kind of like a bullet. As they pass through a person, they cause the most damage right under the skin. They keep on passing through your tissues and eventually exit the body. That’s why they can often damage healthy cells along with the cancer cells.
Protons are positively charged particles found in the nucleus of atoms. Unlike x-rays, protons are very heavy, and they lose speed quickly. Physicians can better control where the proton releases most of its energy so that the radiation stops at the target. That’s why proton therapy has fewer side effects.
The American Cancer Society says that proton therapy delivers “60% less radiation to healthy tissue around the tumor.” However, they say that “more research is needed on these potential benefits to know for sure.” Proton therapy is also more expensive and less available than standard radiation treatment. So the decision about which one to go for can depend on a number of factors including your type of cancer, treatment cost, insurance coverage and whether you have easy access to proton therapy centers.
Mental Health And Support
One of the great challenges for any cancer patient is mental health. For Rivera, football was a way to help deal with the fear and the discomfort of cancer.
“One of the neat things that when I was going through this that really, I think, did help me was the distraction of football itself. Cause sometimes you are looking for something to grasp on to, to help take your mind off of [treatment], and I’m fortunate that mine was my work,” Rivera says.
Rivera‘s wife, Stephanie Rivera, was at his side through his treatments.
Having someone as an advocate and a partner or a caregiver during a cancer battle is so incredibly important. What Rivera found most helpful was being able to rely on his family to be active listeners during appointments and “ask the questions that [were] going to help find the answers.”
What’s The New Name For Washington’s Football Team?
We, of course, had to ask Coach Rivera about what the Washington Football Team should be called this year as the team officially engages in the process of renaming itself. Because we’re not ESPN or The Athletic, SurvivorNet was more interested in the process that the coach went through. It can’t be easy living under the microscope of the media in the nation’s capital and an organization that has gone through a lot of chaos. Despite added stress of renaming the team, Rivera is “looking forward to it finally being named, and [is] looking forward to coming out and saying, ‘Hey, this is who we are going to be going forward.’”