Published on May 03, 2022

A New Force Against Cancer

Cancer survivor Robert Olea with friend Pancreatic cancer survivor Robert Olea (right) visits the Chico Air Museum with a friend.

May 2021 is a time 91-year-old Robert Olea will never forget. It was the month he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Before Olea’s diagnosis, he was a very active man. He helped develop the Chico Air Museum, had a love for painting and woodwork, and had just finished building a new fence for his neighbor.

He was feeling good and keeping busy, but this all changed when he noticed a sudden discoloration in his urine. After experiencing this for several days, he decided it was time to go to Enloe’s Emergency department. Five hours later, the physician told him he had cancer.

Eventually, when surgical oncologist Keith Cavaness, D.O., discussed with him his treatment options, chemotherapy or surgery and their side effects, Olea was resolute against it.

“I said, ‘Forget it! I won’t go through that. If I’m going to die, I’m going to die doing what I want to do. I’m not afraid of dying. I’ve already lived 90 years, what else can I do?’” Olea recalls.

Dr. Cavaness informed him he could expect to live six to nine months more and probably wouldn’t make it to Christmas.

After exhausting his options, Olea began planning for his passing. He met with a pastor to lay out his funeral service, gave away his belongings and spent time with his children.

“I had no side effects,” said pancreatic cancer survivor Robert Olea. “I was not sick. I was not dizzy.”

A Pioneering Treatment

With a multimillion-dollar investment, the Enloe Regional Cancer Center began preparations in 2019 to introduce the MRIdian Linear Accelerator. This new technology combines an MRI scanner with the linear accelerator to create images of the cancerous areas in the body and deliver targeted radiation to attack the cancer. There are only three in California.

Jonathan Clark, M.D., a radiation oncologist, contacted Olea and introduced him to this new treatment option. With this new radiation therapy, Olea could be treated for his cancer in only five sessions and have fewer of the side effects that usually come with chemotherapy.

“I first met Robert when he was referred to me by our medical oncology colleagues,” Dr. Clark said. “As I was reviewing his case and looking at his scans, I realized that he would likely be a perfect candidate for the MRIdian.” 

Olea decided to go for it and became the first pancreatic cancer patient to receive this treatment at Enloe. He described the process as painless and almost like a videogame. He explained that while inside the MRIdian tunnel, he could see the tumor in his body in real time. By holding his breath, he could align the radiation beam to his tumor, sparing other healthy tissues in his body. The radiation treatment would automatically stop when the beam was not aligned with the targeted area.

 “I had no side effects,” Olea said. “I was not sick. I was not dizzy.”

“I do believe that the MRIdian gives people a great chance at fighting cancer and having a good quality of life,” said Jonathan Clark, M.D., a radiation oncologist.

A New Chance to Live

Once Olea completed his five-session treatment in the MRIdian, Dr. Clark informed him the cancer had been stopped in its tracks.

“[Dr. Clark] said, ‘You’re still going to be around here.’ So, instead of having a funeral in December, I’m walking around here,” Olea laughed.

He is still monitoring his health but remains active, sharing his experience with as many people as he can. “I just thank God that I can tell people about it and hope that more people will learn about it,” Olea said.

Dr. Clark explains that when it comes to cancer, a positive result is never a guarantee, but this new technology is the future of the field. “I do believe that the MRIdian gives people a great chance at fighting cancer and having a good quality of life.”