During a work trip to New York City in November 2011, Denise Hansen, felt a painful lump on the lower part of her collarbone. Once she returned to her hometown of Houston, Texas she went directly to the emergency room. Her diagnosis — a swollen lymph node, but Denise knew there was something more to her pain.
Two months later and after many requests, her doctor completed a biopsy of the lymph node and informed Denise that they had found cancer. Subsequent PET scans found cancer in additional lymph nodes in her chest area. For several weeks, doctors diligently searched for the source of the cancer. In March 2012, doctors located the tumor in a tiny spot in the back of her breast. For advanced breast cancer or breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes, doctors will treat it with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
“After they found the tumor, I began chemotherapy which lasted for 6 months, followed by a double mastectomy,” Denise said.
Then, her radiation oncologist, Dr. Ben Smith, initiated the final phase of Denise’s treatment plan — radiation. Dr. Smith recommended a combination of traditional radiation for her chest wall followed by proton therapy. With the tumor near the heart, breast cancer patients may benefit from proton therapy because of its ability to precisely target and deliver a high dose of radiation to the tumor and lymph node regions while sparing nearby healthy tissue and vital organs. “Dr. Smith wanted as little damage to other tissues. He didn’t want to burn the lower part of my esophagus or damage my lungs,” Denise explained.
Positive like a proton
Determined to beat cancer, Denise became her own advocate putting her lawyer skills to test. She questioned her doctor as to why her breast cancer was classified as stage 4 and not stage 3.
“I argued as to why I was not Stage 3. The doctor explained that they don’t use the word ‘cure’ when treating Stage 4. I told him my cancer would be cured, therefore, my cancer is Stage 3,” Denise said with a laugh.
With less radiation exposure to the heart, lungs, bone and healthy tissue, breast cancer patients have a lower risk of potential side effects such as heart disease or reduced lung function. As a result, Denise was able to maintain her quality of life during treatment and continue working. “I just wanted everything to be as normal as possible especially having a child. I needed him to see me as normal as possible like driving myself to treatment,” Denise said.
Denise completed a total of 7 treatments over the course of 7 days at the Proton Therapy Center. “My experience at the Proton Therapy Center was amazing. Everyone is so professional,” Denise said. “It was convenient to be able to park for free at the center.”
Keeping a positive outlook
Besides the support from her husband, family, best friend, and co-workers, Denise believes her positive outlook also played a big factor in her journey with cancer. “I feel my positive attitude was as important as my chemo, surgery and radiation. You have to believe it. Your state of mind makes a huge difference when going through treatment,” Denise said.
Today, Denise is busy going to her 14-year-old son’s baseball and soccer games. “He is everything to me. He is one of the main reasons why I fought through this,” Denise said. “I’m happy watching him play.”