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Resuming an active life

A few years ago, Los Angeles native and impassioned storyteller Sara Falaro was running an online branding business for artists in New York. Although she was only in her twenties, Sara was experiencing indescribable pain. She tried yoga and physical therapy, but nothing seemed to work.

After two years of trial and error, a visit with a neurologist finally gave her an answer: at age 27, Sara was diagnosed with Grade 2 spinal ependymoma.

While the diagnosis was a shock to everyone around her because of her age, Sara noticed the striking coincidence that her dad was also diagnosed with cancer at 27. She was stunned but also felt “strangely validated” once she received the news.

Finding strength, making peace

Just a few short weeks after her diagnosis, Sara had surgery at Northwell Health’s Lenox Hill Hospital to remove the tumor in her spinal cord. Thankfully, her mom was able to come to New York from the West Coast to help during the recovery process. Adjusting to the temporary mobility restrictions required after surgery was a big challenge to overcome for Sara.

 

She says, “for someone who has always been independent and active and productive, I suddenly had to make peace with stillness and not being able to do things.”

 

During this period, her recovery was long, painful and exhausting because of the multiple post-operative infections that she endured. She was looking forward to an easier mode of treatment.

 

Radiation was always in the cards for Sara’s treatment plan. While conventional radiation sounded scary, Sara’s neurosurgeon and radiation oncologist at Northwell Health agreed that she was a strong candidate for proton therapy.

 

Sara was then introduced to Dr. Arpit Chhabra at the New York Proton Center and, using his expertise and deep knowledge of treating spinal tumors, he confirmed that proton therapy was the way to go. “Given the potential to achieve long-term cure in Sara’s case with an approach of surgery and radiation, it was imperative that we used a form of radiation that minimized the risk of not only short, but also long-term side effects, in light of her young age and active lifestyle. Since proton therapy dramatically reduces dose to surrounding normal tissues, it is a powerful treatment option to maximize tumor control while minimizing risk of toxicities from radiation therapy.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Initially, Sara’s insurance denied her request to cover the treatment. However, she had the New York Proton Center (NYPC) in her corner and they successfully appealed the case.

 

Finally coming to NYPC “felt like a light at the end of a very scary tunnel,” Sara says, especially in light of the painful recovery experience she had previously.

 

Sara spent time researching proton therapy once she was approved and immediately felt hopeful. Because proton therapy didn’t have the same side effects as other forms of radiation, she was relieved. When Dr. Chhabra told her about the state-of-the-art pencil beam scanning technology available at NYPC, she was “amazed that science had come so far.” Pencil beam scanning uses an extremely narrow beam to precisely “dot” the protons onto the tumor, layer by layer, dramatically reducing the amount of radiation to healthy tissues and organs near the treatment area.

 

She had daily treatment for six weeks – a total of 30 treatments. Sara felt strong during this time and did not feel the need for a nap until her very last day of treatment. She experienced some redness on the back of her neck, but she otherwise had very few side effects and recovered quickly.

 

Sara had such a positive experience at NYPC that she looked forward to going in for treatment.

 

‘Miss Congeniality’

Her treatment team nicknamed her ‘Miss Congeniality’ because of her attitude all throughout the process. To Sara, the radiation therapists, nurses, and other members of her team felt like friends helping her through the worst time in her life. She expected radiation to be the “last hurdle,” where she would cross the finish line with her newfound friends cheering her on. And it was—the team was there to celebrate with Sara as she rang a bell to signify the last day of treatment.

 

Sara hopes to share her story widely and be an inspiration to others diagnosed with cancer. She would tell other patients to “be open to connecting with the people who are there for you,” and that “every single person is on your team and wants you to heal.”

 

In addition to music she’s already written, she is writing a book about her experience with cancer.

 

At the beginning of her cancer journey, Sara created a beautiful video of herself dancing on a rooftop that soon went viral. It now has over 1 million views and counting.

 

Like her dad, Sara had cancer at age 27. She believes that if he were alive today, he’d be so proud of her for getting the most advanced treatment available and for being a role model for others.

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.