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“The elephant in the room:” An undiagnosed cancer

Kathi Viola was leading a busy and fulfilling life: Wife to a loving husband, mother to two grown children adopted from Colombia and Guatemala, grandmother to two others, and careerwoman running a coalition on drug and alcohol abuse prevention. Until one day, during a routine check-up, she mentioned to her physician what she describes as the “elephant in the room:” a lump in her breast that she had largely been ignoring.

Her physician recommended a needle biopsy, which she received two days later, immediately followed by a diagnosis of breast cancer.

An honest and direct—but also encouraging—prognosis.

Following several cycles of chemotherapy and a mastectomy for her lymph node-positive breast cancer, as well as a bout of community acquired pneumonia, Kathi was scheduled for conventional photon radiation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). However, due to a carcinoid tumor previously discovered in Kathi’s right lung, her doctor instead recommended proton therapy and referred her to Dr. Isabelle Choi, radiation oncology attending at MSK and Clinical Director at the New York Proton Center.

 

“We knew that, following Kathi’s treatment, we would need to surgically remove the lobe with her carcinoid tumor,” said Dr. Choi. “Proton therapy dramatically reduced the prospect of complications from that surgery. It also helped minimize any damage, inflammation and scarring to her remaining lung tissue.”

 

During her first conversation with Dr. Choi, Kathi felt incredibly comfortable and reassured.

 

“She explained proton therapy just the way I like it,” Kathi said. “Very matter-of-fact. No sugar coating, but also very positive. She basically said, ‘This is what we can do. This is how we predict it will work.’”

 

And just as Dr. Choi predicted, it did work, every bit as well as expected.

 

“I went to see my breast surgeon after my proton therapy,” said Kathi. “And she basically said, ‘Everything looks wonderful.’”

An extraordinary treatment, with none of the side effects.

Kathi was heartened by virtually everything she encountered at the center—but in particular with the remarkable effectiveness of her proton therapy. Due to the precision of the proton beams, the radiation accurately targeted the cancer while minimizing radiation exposure to adjacent tissues and organs. That was a crucial benefit in the case of a synchronous lung tumor like hers, which requires additional thoracic surgery and lung tissue removal.

 

“It was all just fascinating. And I loved the way they explained it to me: ‘Beam three will be here in 30 seconds, beam four will be here in 45 seconds.’ It was like the air traffic controllers at Kennedy Airport.”

 

Unlike conventional photon radiation therapy, the side effects of Kathi’s proton treatment were minimal. There was no peeling, blistering, or radiation burn—and only mildly noticeable skin redness.

 

“A week later on my birthday, we went out to dinner,” she said. “And the lobster on my plate was redder than the skin on my chest.”

 

Asked how she might counsel someone else navigating cancer, Kathi was clear and emphatic.

 

“If they have the option, I’d recommend going proton. It’s an easy treatment, with far less damage to other organs. Since they’re already going through this frightening battle, I’d say, ‘Keep everything else as healthy as you can.”

Enveloped in kindness and camaraderie

As impressed as she was with the proton technology, Kathi was even more deeply affected by the camaraderie she felt with the New York Proton Center team. Everyone she met was knowledgeable and thoroughly professional, but at the same time warm and easygoing. What began as lighthearted conversations with the staff about what type of music to play during her treatment soon evolved into more intimate sharing and storytelling—about their upbringings, books they read, foods they enjoyed.

 

“It was a lot of those little interactions that made it all so comfortable,” Kathi said. “Even though you’re there for a very serious reason, the whole thing was very human and very caring.

 

“At the same time, you always have a feeling of total confidence in your doctors and your entire support team. You never doubt for a moment that you’re getting outstanding care.”

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“For me,” she said, “it was very much a case of - what's the most life-saving treatment? The long-term goal is to be living, and I don't care how we get there.”

And Kathi did indeed get there—healthy and optimistic and overcome with gratitude—by way of the New York Proton Center.

How can we help?

Want to find out if proton therapy might be a good fit for you or your patient? Call us at 833-NYPROTON (833-697-7686) or fill out the appropriate form below.