They call themselves "The Beamer Gang," an eclectic group of proton beam therapy program patients at Mayo Clinic in Arizona with backgrounds as diverse as their personalities. They found themselves woven into a deep and lasting friendship formed by the support they showed one another through proton beam radiation treatments for prostate cancer.
For Ray Mendoza, meeting this group of fellow proton beam therapy patients who were all on the same treatment schedule was just what the doctor ordered after his diagnosis. "I don't know how to explain the feeling of a cancer diagnosis or the feeling you have when you're about to start your first treatment," he says. "We felt so scared and all alone, so meeting everybody like this came at a perfect time for us. It was a relief knowing we weren't, in fact, alone."
No, they were not. In addition to Ray and his wife, Debbie, there were Dave and Donna Maasen; Jimmy and Frenchie Starks; Kingsley and Elaine Austin; Bill Shields; and Jim Lucas, all in the waiting room with them, day in and day out, to share that burden. "We're all very different people," Dave Maasen says. With different professions, including nuclear scientist, business executive and UPS driver. None of those differences mattered, Dave tells us, because "we were all in the same boat. We all have cancer and we're all at Mayo Clinic being treated for it. So let's make the best of it."
And that they did, by openly talking about it in a way that Debbie Mendoza didn't think her husband, Ray, was capable of. "I saw such a change in Ray," she says. "He became much more outspoken about his diagnosis. The men would sit there in the waiting room and talk about their proton numbers, how many treatments they were receiving, their test scores … they'd just compare notes about everything. Openly talking about everything like that really helped Ray. I saw him open up in a way that I really never have seen before during our 40 years of marriage. It did him a lot of good to get all of that stuff out."
Just as it did for others in the group. "Going through treatment with this kind of ongoing support and these kinds of friendships helped relax everyone," Frenchie Starks says. "We laughed more than we worried."
Thanks in no small part to the group's "ring leader," Kingsley Austin. "He comes up with these one-liners and jokes so easily," Kingsley's wife, Elaine Austin, says. "He's got the whole place in stitches, including the staff, the doctors, the nurses, the technicians, everybody."
One staff member who's had a front-row seat to the Beamer Gang's growing dynamic since day one, Desk Operations Specialist Rick Dunteman, tells us the group is unlike anything he's witnessed throughout his career at Mayo Clinic. "I've never seen patients have lunch together, go out to dinner together, come to each other's final treatment, whether it was their own treatment day or not," he says. "I think what makes them so unique is the sheer number of people who bonded at the same time, along with the depth of that bond."
It's a bond that's made their experience not only bearable, but enjoyable, they say. "The camaraderie of our group, the positivity of the staff, it was all great. And the whole staff at Mayo has made a similar impact on us," Kingsley Austin says. "They're all so warm, so welcoming, and so compassionate. You don't feel like a number at Mayo Clinic, and the staff certainly doesn't treat you as one."
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