Cancer survivor and proton therapy advocate Denise Durgin has always considered herself to have “a soul of service.” Her new book, Prescription for Proton Radiation: Real Patient Stories, Expert Physician Input on a Highly Precise Form of Radiation Therapy, gives us a glimpse into her soul, through her journey with proton therapy and her connection to the New York Proton Center’s own Dr. Arpit Chhabra and Dr. Isabelle Choi.
Denise’s passion to serve others began with a career in hospitality with Marriott, The Ritz-Carlton and Host Hotels & Resorts which lasted over 28 years. Looking to extend her service to an even more personal level, she started her own executive coaching practice. Three months after she launched her business, in January 2018, a routine mammogram led to a life-changing diagnosis of breast cancer.
Denise underwent a mastectomy for her diagnosis and due to the presence of cancer in one lymph node which passed through the lymph node wall, was recommended to undergo radiation therapy. At first she was prescribed conventional IMRT/photon/Xray radiation, however, serendipitously through a friend learned about proton therapy.
Through her subsequent research, she learned that proton therapy, due to enhanced precision and lack of exit dose behind the tumor, is able to achieve similar cancer control to conventional radiation with a lower risk of toxicity. After a month’s long fight with her insurance company to get her proton radiation covered she decided to pay out of pocket. On the day she made that decision, her insurance company fortunately authorized proton treatment for her case.
Denise wanted her life to remain as normal as possible throughout her treatments at the Maryland Proton Treatment Center (MPTC), which she was able to achieve – she kept working, still went to the gym and kept her daily routine. She learned about meditation at the proton center, and even started journaling a little bit about her life and experience going through proton therapy. It was at the MPTC that she met Dr. Arpit Chhabra who was at the time completing a Proton Therapy Fellowship and was one of the physicians on her treatment team.
Denise recalled tough moments in her treatment but she kept her “Boston Strong mentality” and got through it, knowing that proton therapy was the right form of treatment for her, for which she remains grateful.
Once her treatments were finished in June 2018, Denise immediately created her own website to highlight the benefits of proton therapy so other patients could reach out to her. In 2019 she became a proton champion at The Alliance for Proton Therapy Access. In 2020, Denise realized that she wanted and needed to do more and enrolled in the Creator’s Institute book writing course. In 2021, she began volunteering on the Patient, Family Advisory Council for Proton Therapy Partners.
Denise reconnected with Dr. Chhabra, who had joined the New York Proton Center, for his thoughts on her idea for a book for patients considering proton therapy. Dr. Chhabra absolutely encouraged Denise to write her book and was one of the physicians she interviewed for the work. Dr. Chhabra then introduced Denise to his NYPC colleague, Dr. Isabelle Choi, who served as a great resource to talk about breast cancer, proton therapy and available clinical trials.
The resulting book, Prescription for Proton Radiation, is an empowering guide to patients like Denise who need more information on proton therapy, encouragement to stand up to their insurance companies for coverage and heartfelt advice from 16 patients, including her own personal experience.
Her book serves as a catalyst for conversations with a community of patients and survivors representing nine different disease types – a pathway to creating that much needed space. Denise wants to remind patients that “speaking up and having the courage to speak up is the first step.”
Denise hopes that she conveys that proton radiation is not experimental and it should be covered by insurance companies if a physician deems it medically necessary.
Denise now works as a Patient Experience Performance Advisor for the Women’s and Children’s service lines at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus in Fairfax, Virginia. Through her book and volunteer work in proton therapy, she continues to serve as a resource for other patients and hopes to continue to make positive change. Denise always had a dream of being an author and now her book serves as a source of inspiration and hope.
All proceeds from her book will be donated to two pediatric brain cancer organizations.