Note: This is the first in a monthly series of blogs that will be authored by Dr. Ben Wilkinson, radiation oncologist and medical director for Provision Center for Proton Therapy. Dr. Wilkinson will cover a variety of topics related to proton therapy treatment and cancer care.
For some years now, the damage conventional radiation can do to the hearts of breast cancer patients has been documented in the medical literature.
Now, we’re seeing the same effects in lung cancer patients.
If you ‘heart’ your ‘heart,’ a growing number of studies demonstrate that treating cancer with protons helps reduce the risk of heart disease due to radiation exposure. This is especially important for breast cancer patients, whose cardiovascular systems can suffer from conventional radiation spilling over into the heart and lungs.
When Tammy Coleman sets her mind to something, she is not to be deterred.
Coleman, who recently completed proton therapy for breast cancer, had signed up for the Komen Race for the Cure this past Saturday. Thus, when she was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday with what the doctor informed her was a heart attack, she gave him very specific instructions.
“I told the ER doctor that he needed to call MY doctors, and I needed to be out of there by Thursday,” says Coleman. “My thoughts were, ‘I got a race to run! I’ve got to get out of here!'”
Her doctor did arrive later that day, ran some tests and saw to it she was out of the hospital Thursday night. And three nurses from her cardiologist’s office were there with Coleman and her son, Rodney—all beaming as they strolled down the 5K course.
At the end of the race, Coleman found one of Provision‘s proton therapy cars in a nearby parking lot, posed for pictures and savored her victory.
It’s not been an easy road for her. Prior to her breast cancer diagnosis, Coleman had two heart attacks and a stroke, and she’s struggled with debilitating high blood pressure. With the breast cancer came a double mastectomy and complete hysterectomy—she tested positive for the BRCA gene, which indicates a high probability of both breast and ovarian cancer—followed by chemotherapy and then radiation, in her case, proton therapy. With her medical history, conventional radiation would have further heightened her risk of more damage to her heart as well as lungs. She emerged from the experience an enthusiastic advocate for breast cancer research and proton therapy. Read more about Coleman and her son’s experience at ProtonStories.com.
Throughout the Race for the Cure course, “we went slow, laughed, talked and danced a little along the way. I felt great.We made it to the end of the race,” says Coleman. “We found the Proton Mobile, and that’s when it hit me. I had come to the end of the journey of my fight against breast cancer.”
Now, it’s time to rest up and take it easy, she says, as she recovers from a string of survivor events, cancer treatment and her recent trip to the hospital.
“I had been so busy trying to participate in every pink event that I was invited to and keep up with everything else life brings,” she says. “For some reason it’s been hard to say no. I am too hyper for my own good sometimes. Slowing down has not been my option. My body said different.”
She doesn’t plan on stopping her advocacy efforts in the future, just pacing herself. And for others facing the cancer battle, she has some advice.
“Cancer doesn’t always have to be the end. Embrace life for what it is. Live every day as if it’s your last day. I was given lumpy lemons and made pink lemonade!”