Bill Whittaker, 73, Union, stood before more than 230 doctors and nurses at Barnes-Jewish Hospital at a recent conference to share his miraculous experiences with proton beam therapy at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Louis.
Whittaker was diagnosed with terminal Stage 3 lung cancer in October 2015, and was given just six months to live. The news was delivered by his best friend, Dr. Kevin Smith, who also is his primary care physician.
At the conference, Whittaker was given two standing ovations, and attendees got a healthy dose of laughter, because if you’ve ever met Bill Whittaker, you know you’re in for lots (and lots) of laughs.
As a child, Whittaker’s paternal grandmother lived with them, he told those at the conference. His grandmother had diabetes and he was responsible for giving her an insulin shot every day before school.
When he went to college, his grandmother went to live in a nursing home near his college campus in Southeast Missouri. Once or twice a week, he would stop in to visit.
“You know how college kids are, we’re hungry,” he said. So one visit, he noticed a bowl of peanuts nearby that he helps himself to. In Whittaker’s story, the peanuts taste a little “yucky” but he assumes they’re old and continues eating them until they’re almost gone.
“So I said ‘Granny, I’m so sorry. I didn’t intend to but I’ve eaten all of your peanuts. So I’ll go buy some more and I’ll bring them back right now. I’ll just go right now,’ and she said ‘Oh Billy, Billy, don’t worry about it, I just suck the chocolate off of them anyway.”
Laughter echoed throughout the conference room, he said, and doctors stood to applaud him.
“So when I got ready to finish my talk, I said I realize that you people have a terrible job, a tough job — 70 to 80 percent of the people you deal with don’t make it,” he said. “So you can’t form bonds with anybody because, you know, they make it six months or a year and it has a tendency to put you down in the dumps in a bad time.
So what I would like to do is give you something to remind you how fun life can be and if you are feeling bad — I want you to take this little gift back and put it in one of your drawers in your desk and if you get to feeling bad, get one of your friends, go somewhere and sit down and share it with your friend,” he said, giving every person in attendance a box of chocolate-covered peanuts.
“I suggest that you take the chocolate and you give them the peanuts,” he said, laughing heartily at the memory.
The story is only “mostly true,” he admits, but humor has gotten Whittaker through his entire life.
Proton Beam Therapy
Whittaker has a copy of his most recent cancer scans on his phone, the ones that say the once baseball-sized tumor in his lung has shrunk and is not growing or changing.
It was an accident that the cancer was spotted in the first place. Whittaker, who majored in zoology in college, among other things, said he really wanted to see his own insides. He was at an annual exam when he asked for an X-ray.
Having a best friend as your physician helps for these types of requests, and he obliged.
“All of my markers (on the physical) are fantastic. They always are,” he said. But the X-ray revealed “the largest tumor I’ve seen in years,” his friend told him.
From there, Whittaker visited three doctors who all gave him the same grim prognosis.
But that didn’t stop Whittaker, who said if he were going to die, he wanted to help others in his position. Through a friend of a friend, he connected with Dr. Jeffrey Bradley, a world renowned proton beam cancer specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
Whittaker volunteered for the relatively new proton beam therapy.
There are few proton beam machines in the world, but in St. Louis, beneath the parking garage at Barnes, sits the machine that saved Whittaker’s life. The machine, guided by the healing hands of Dr. Bradley, “was my only chance,” Whittaker said.
According to the hospital’s website, the treatments, which utilize the world’s first proton system of its kind, is a precise form of radiation treatment that targets tumors while sparing surrounding healthy tissues, making it ideal for adults with tumors near the heart, brain or other sensitive locations as well as treating pediatric cancer patients.
“I told him that if he would put me in the proton beam therapy, I would be his poster child. I guarantee you, I will be more successful and my body will do more with this cancer than anybody you’ve ever had,” he said. “Ironically, it has.”
Whittaker had to do the therapy every day for 35 days and did chemotherapy once each week for six weeks.
Every single visit, Whittaker dressed in costume. He walked through the hospital dressed as Elvis, another time he went with a paper sack over his head. Other times he wore colorful wigs, glasses and other fun garb. Once, after a nurse had trouble finding a vein, he put 100 Band-Aids on his arm for the next visit to get a rise from the staff.
His shenanigans didn’t stay quiet for long and soon, people began gathering in the waiting rooms to see what new outfit he’d come up with that week.
After his 35th therapy session, doctors asked if they could give him three doses at one time.
“You have to know, it will either cure you or kill you,” the doctor told him. “I said sure, I can handle it. I’m tough.”
He didn’t believe he would get sick, but he did. He got very, very sick.
When they asked him to do it a second time, he said “put me in, coach.”
Again, he got very, very sick — so sick that he prayed to God to come and get him. He prayed to just go to sleep and not hurt anyone, and he did. He went to sleep, but woke up.
“Maybe I’ve got something to do down here yet,” he said. “But after that, I made this marvelous, marvelous recovery.”
Doctors say they don’t really understand his progress. He’s broken the bell curve.
At Barnes Jewish, when a patient finished chemotherapy they ring a bell. Bill Whittaker rang the bell Feb. 11, 2016.
Last year, Whittaker earned a certificate from the University of Missouri Medical School for helping a student stay in school.
One of the doctors had asked him to meet with a medical student who was considering changing his path. What was supposed to be a 30-minute chat turned into four hours, and the student stayed in medical school.
“I was pretty proud of that,” Whittaker said.
Whittaker was born in St. Joseph, f Benton Harbor, Mich., on the lower east side of Michigan, about 1,200 feet from Lake Michigan and just across from Chicago.
A lifelong jokester, Whittaker attributes part of his personality, jokingly, to having been born in a mental institution. That part he swears is true.
It was Jan. 30, 1944. The winters in Michigan were cold, and in his mother’s telling it was dark and snowing when she went into labor.
His uncle, whose hobby was “drinking whiskey” was driving his parents to the hospital, but because of the storm, got lost on the way. He found a hospital, just in time. But when they arrived, “they go up to the desk to sign in and there’s a sign that says St. Joe’s Sanitarium Hospital for the Mentally Insane.”
“Some people say I’ve been a little crazy all my life and some say I’ve been a hell of a lot crazy all my life,” he said.
With roots in Cape Girardeau, the family was in Michigan because during World War II, his father worked in a shell (munition) factory. After the war, the family moved back to Southeast Missouri. He graduated from high school in Advance, Mo., in 1962.
Whittaker attended Southeast Missouri State University, where he earned a degree in Zoology (among other things) with an emphasis on entomology, as well as degrees in psychology and chemistry and an English literature minor.
In college, he was offered a job working in the garment industry, which he did for 13 years. He was second in charge at Thorngate Division of Hart, Shaffner and Marx, with more than 2,000 employees in seven different plants. He was based in Chaffee.
It was during this time that he met his wife, Kay, nee Smith.
Some special guests were visiting from out of town, and he was told to get a date for dinner that night.
He took his clothes to Candy Cane Cleaners, and knew he would be asking out “the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen in his life.”
“I would dirty clothes just to take them to Candy Cane Cleaners,” he said.
Kay said yes to the impromptu date and even made a dress before he picked her up that evening.
“Now the funny thing about it is she put the left sleeve inside out. The dress was beautiful, but the worst thing you can do is make a mistake in sewing when the people you go around sew for a living,” he said. “But nobody said a word.”
The two have been married for 47 years.
Bill and Kay Whittaker have two children, Mackenzie Sans Soucie and Bill Whittaker Jr., and one granddaughter, Skylar Sans Soucie.
Bill Whittaker is a member of the Union Kiwanis Club, where he is known as “the hot dog man.” He cooks for the Fair and any outing he is asked. He volunteers for peanut days, rings bells during the holidays and doesn’t often turn down a volunteer opportunity.
In 1988, the couple moved to Great Falls, Mont., where Bill Whittaker worked in the insurance business as a district manager. He worked in the farm and ranch writing business, but when that part of the business was discontinued, he no longer had any policies to write.
In 1995, he moved to Chesterfield until his retirement in 2002. At that time, he and his wife moved to Union to be near his cousin and her husband, who he was very close to until he passed away a few years ago.
In 2011, Bill Whittaker had prostate cancer, but the diagnosis and surgery to remove his prostate had very little effect on him.
“It was amazing. I went home the next day and within three weeks I was walking six miles,” he said.
He decided to buy a zero-turn mower. He was having trouble with the controls on the mower when Kay asked if she could try. He laughed, but told her to give it a try.
“I had forgotten that she has a pilot’s license,” he said, adding that she had no trouble mowing the lawn. But it was after that exerience that a spot popped up and Kay was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, she had to have a stent put in her heart.
But all of that is behind them now, Whittaker said.
Attitude Aids Recovery
Whittaker said his attitude has helped in his recovery tremendously.
“They told me that 100 times,” he said. “I’m telling you what, I would go into the waiting room and it would fill with nurses, residents and interns. They would all be sitting there waiting for me. I always did something. It was fun.”
Whittaker said he never considered himself sick and that he owes his life to Dr. Bradley with the proton beam therapy program, Dr. Daniel Morgensztern, his chemotherapy doctor, and Alicia Carmack, his nurse, who is from Washington.
“They were marvelous. I was given up for dead,” he said. “I’m a survivor because of the technology and because of those people.”
He also said “he wouldn’t be worth a damn” without his lovely wife.
Whittaker said his mom always told him it’s harder on you to be mad or upset at someone than it is on them. “So why be mad? It’s easier and people like it if you just have fun.”
So that’s what I do,” he said.