SPONSORED — For Aimée Huff, dying of breast cancer wasn’t an option.
Even after finding lumps in her breast, she wasn’t particularly worried.
“I knew that 80 percent of breast lumps are benign, and I knew that I was seeing my OB-GYN in three weeks, and thought I’d mention it to her,” she recalled. “Not in a million years did I think that everything that’s happened in the past year was the path that was ahead of me.”
Huff was soon confronted with the fact that she had a large tumor, and it wasn’t benign.
Confronted by the statistics of breast cancer survival, in conjunction with the various illnesses linked as side effects of traditional radiation therapy, Huff took her treatment into her hands.
“I decided in that moment that I didn’t care what the statistics said. I wasn’t a statistic,” she said.
Fortunately, the average five-year survival rate for people with breast cancer is now 90 percent, according to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center. That said, many breast cancer patients who defeat the cancer then experience treatment side effects that can be life-altering and even fatal.
According to a new research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine, women who have had breast cancer are at an estimated 0.5 percent to 3.5 percent increased risk for a heart attack or other major heart event. The risk is highest among women who experienced radiation to the left breast — close to the heart.
Additionally, a study published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, for every one gray of radiation (the unit used to measure the absorbed radiation dose), the risk of cardiac event rises by 7.4 percent. This is particularly troubling when you consider that a standard dose of radiation is 60 grays.
That’s why Huff’s uncle, a physician, recommended early on that she pursue proton therapy for her cancer.
“With conventional radiation and X-rays, the radiation enters the body but it also exits, and it deposits radiation dose as it exits the body,” said Dr. Christine Fang, radiation oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center. “With proton therapy, there is no exit dose.”
In a nutshell, proton beam therapy targets cancer tumors while minimizing radiation exposure to the surrounding healthy tissue, especially the heart and lungs. This is particularly important for patients who are relatively young and could otherwise be at risk of experiencing ongoing health problems once they’ve survived the cancer.
“There’s no extraneous dose to areas that don’t need radiation,” Fang said.
“Number 1, was really the collateral damage to heart and lungs, that being a left-sided tumor, and I’m 40 years old.” Huff said.
“My financial plan says that my heart and lungs need to go another 60+ years, and I wanna be there for grandchildren and great grandbabies and it wasn’t acceptable that I could survive the cancer and have my heart and lungs give out early. And so the fact that they could literally sculpt the treatment field around my healthy organs and just clean up any stray cancer cells was huge.”
For Huff, what proton therapy actually means is a lifetime of health and happiness in front of her.
“I’m so grateful for the gift of time to spend with my family,” Huff said. “And that I’ll be here to see my kids grow up, that I get to see my grandchildren and that I get to enjoy life from here on out.”