Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas shines light on his prostate cancer battle

Submitted photo
Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas shows the gantry that was used in his proton radiation treatments at the Scripps Proton Therapy Center in San Diego. The gantry, three stories tall, rotated around Vrakas while it directed the proton beam at the cancerous spot. Vrakas has returned from California after eight weeks of treatment.
Published on: 6/30/2014

They were two moments Dan Vrakas won't forget. Two hugs that showed him the support he's had and will have in what has been a "spiritual journey."

They symbolized the road he's been on over the last few months and now what and who will be with him as he continues his fight against prostate cancer.

After spending the last two months with his oldest daughter, Paula, in San Diego getting treatment for his cancer, he embraced her before departing home, knowing the two had just been through a bonding experience like none before.

Paula, who resides in Encinitas, California, had watched her dad undergo treatment to help eradicate the cancer at a nearby medical center for eight weeks.

The Waukesha County executive then embarked on a four-day drive home. But he didn't go to his home in Delafield first. He knew his younger daughter, Sara, was working at Western Lakes Golf Club in Pewaukee, and when he saw her, the two quickly embraced.

"I'm a lucky guy," Vrakas said.

It's this optimism, he said, that helped him get through some of the tougher moments in his life recently.

"The world slows down when you get the news that you have cancer," Vrakas said. "It's given me an added dimension to my life."

Hearing the news

Vrakas' battle began after a routine blood draw in January and additional tests indicated he had prostate cancer.

After seeing a urologist, a biopsy showed that more than half of Vrakas' prostate was inflicted with cancer. Vrakas said doctors believed they detected it early enough that it didn't spread into his lymph nodes.

Vrakas had Stage 2 prostate cancer. His doctors told him he could have surgery to remove the prostate or kill it with radiation.

After extensive research, Vrakas chose the radiation option and decided that the Scripps Proton Therapy Center in San Diego was the best option. The fact that Paula lives about 15 miles north of the center, along the coast, was "a happy coincidence," Vrakas said.

Time to reflect

Vrakas said he did "a lot of thinking" on his drive alone from Wisconsin to southern California.

He thought about Paula and Sara. He thought about his life, that at 58 years old, he has had the opportunity to serve as the county's leader for the last nine years, after previously serving for 15 years as a state representative in Madison. He thought about his dad, Paul, the former mayor of Waukesha; his mom, Evelyn; and brother Andy.

But he also thought about his brother Tim. The brother who was taken from him too soon. At 26 years old, Tim was diagnosed with leukemia and after five quick months he lost his battle in 1980.

"That was devastating," said Dan, who was 24 at the time. "He didn't have any chance, so that gives me a little perspective."

Undergoing treatments

Vrakas could draw on the strength his brother exhibited and knew he could get through his 40 radiation treatments, which were given to him five days a week in March, April and May.

"You're in this high-technology room where they deliver the radiation, and you're praying to God," Vrakas said. "You have this old and new dynamic where you're praying to a God that people have prayed to from the beginning of time while you're in there and asking that this treatment by a new state-of-the-art machine takes the cancer away."

His doctors were radiating his entire prostate through proton radiation (something that doesn't see immediate results). But Vrakas will get checkups locally every six months for the next five years to see how the radiation is progressing.

"I have every reason to believe that the radiation hit the target and is doing the job on the cancer," Vrakas said.

While in California, Vrakas said he kept eating well, did a light workout every day, walked the beach and did a lot of reading. Although fatigue often set in, he said the side effects were minimal.

"It was a very healing experience," Vrakas said.

Vrakas also continued to tend to county business while in San Diego. He had a conference call every morning with his office, used Skype and FaceTime to communicate back home and had county packets sent to him.

"We gave the post office a lot of business," Vrakas said with a laugh. "The whole team rallied to my assistance."

New bond to relationship

Vrakas specifically highlighted the job Waukesha County Board Chairman Paul Decker did. Decker represented the county at community and ribbon-cutting events and had regular contact with Vrakas.

Decker, of Hartland, also provided another form of guidance: that of a fellow cancer survivor.

"We would talk county business, but also about his treatments, and it just became a natural part of our conversation," said Decker, who was diagnosed 17 years ago with lung cancer despite never smoking in his life. "The benefits of going through it just enriched our relationship."

After a long recovery, Decker became an advocate for lung cancer survivors. And it was after his battle that Decker decided it was time to give back to his community. Vrakas called Decker, who operates on one lung, "an inspiration."

Over the last few months, Decker said he gained "a deeper appreciation" for Vrakas' dedication to the community.

"He didn't want (the cancer) to be an excuse and didn't allow it to be," Decker said. "He never lost sight of his responsibility of his job, and he never felt sorry for himself and kept on serving. The people of this county have a lot to be proud of with a gentleman like Dan leading it."

Understanding limitations

Since returning to his Waukesha County executive's desk June 1, Vrakas has begun preparing the 2015 budget, attended community functions and was busy last week at the Governor's Council on Workforce Investment in Madison.

"I saw him a little tired after working the other day and told him that you shouldn't fight your body," Decker said. "As a fellow cancer survivor, I understand the limitations. So I told him to let your body rest and continue its recovery. It's more important to do that, and you'll have another day to work."

While Vrakas said he doesn't feel like a cancer patient, he said he has to remember that the radiation is still at work in his body.

"I'm not trying to push myself," said Vrakas, who was told by his doctors that the radiation can have a delayed effect. "It's in there killing the prostate gland. So when I get a little tired, I try to just close my eyes and relax and that seems to work."

Vrakas now wants to be an advocate for prostate cancer patients and use his platform to encourage other men and women to get tested.

"I've heard from a lot of people who said they weren't getting annual physicals and now will," Vrakas said. "That's been a real upside of this whole experience. I'm trying to get the word out about getting regular checkups, and if detected early you can still have a positive result."