A Mom’s Story of Battling Cancer With Protons
Libertyville mom Christa Johnson is one of the first cancer patients in Illinois to receive proton therapy.
On Nov. 6, 2010 Christa Johnson, a mother of two young boys, had a seizure. After being taken to Highland Park Hospital, doctors found a tumor on the right frontal lobe in her brain.
“It was extremely hard to believe,” Johnson said. “Every symptom of having a tumor I blamed on being a stay-at-home mom. I had headaches. I’d go to the refrigerator and forget what I went in there for. It’s all normal stuff for moms.”
She was sent to neuro-oncology specialists at Evanston North Shore and on Nov. 24 she received surgery to remove the cancerous tumor. The risks of Johnson’s surgery included paralysis of her left side.
“They asked what my main goal was,” Johnson said. “So I said I wanted to stay home with my children.”
According to Johnson, the doctors did not operate deeply on her tumor, to maintain her mobility, and successfully removed 60 percent of the tumor. Johnson was paralyzed on the left side for three days following the surgery, but with therapy, she regained all of her feeling and mobility.
To battle the remaining tumor, Johnson suprised her doctor by asking about the possiblity of proton therapy, which uses a beam of protons to target and help remove diseased tissues.
“We had heard about proton therapy before. We have a friend whose daughter had a tumor on her neck,” Johnson explained. “She received proton therapy and had clean MRI’s ever since.”
Johnson’s doctor at North Shore was familiar with proton therapy, and sent her to CDH Proton Center, a ProCure Center in Warrenville, IL. The proton center, one of nine in the country, opened its doors in October, 2010.
“After I asked my doctor about it, I was amazed how easily the process went,” Johnson said.
Dr. William Hartsell, medical director of the CDH Proton Center explains that in standard radiation therapy x-rays’ energy hits normal cells and cancer cells.
“The problem with standard radiation therapy is the x-rays just don’t stop at the area we’re treating, but keep going to other parts of the body,” he said. “Protons are charged particles, so they go a certain distance to the area we’re treating and give off most of their energy and no more is given off beyond that. It’s much more precise.”
Hartsell says that standard radiation therapy is still extremely effective and the most widely used, but proton therapy is useful for treating children, whose tissue is growing and vulnerable to radiation treatment, as well as patients with tumors in places near vital organs or crucial tissues such as on the brain, spine, nasal cavities, and lungs.
“Our physicist describes it as a bottle rocket,” Hartsell said. “It shoots off and gives off its bang right there at the spot. That means that the normal tissues which are right around the tumor don’t get affected.”
Hartsell says the side effects of proton therapy tend to be lower than with standard radiation therapy, but it depends on the part of the body being treated.
Fewer Hair Loss
Johnson uses her hair loss as an example of the difference between the two therapies.
“Radiation kills growing cells, and hair is growing cells,” Johnson said. “And so you can see where the protons went in, but I still have all of my other hair.”
Johnson lost all of the hair within the three-inch diameter of where she received the proton therapy, but the rest of her hair was unaffected.
According to Hartsell, there were proton centers in the 1960’s at the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University, but the first hospital center didn’t open until 1990 at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.
“Up until ten years ago, that was the only hospital based facility the United States,” Hartsell said. “They started treating cancer patients with proton therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital about ten years ago. Since then, the other centers have opened in the past five years.”
Hartsell says that he and his team of doctors worked for seven years to receive the protons and open their facility. Many of the doctors at the proton center were involved in pediatric radiation oncology, and were interested in protons as a way to treat their young patients.
“That was the main reason,” Hartsell said. “But we’ve seen studies coming from around the world showing the benefits of protons compared to standard radiation, and I think that more proton centers will be built in the future.”
Getting Back on Track
Johnson, the 36th person to receive treatment from the proton center, now takes an oral drug form of chemo therapy to treat any remaining cancerous cells.
“I used to be so active,” Johnson said. “We’d walk uptown and go to Cook Park or fish on Lake Minear. I’m hoping I can build my energy level back up.”
She will continue taking the chemo therapy for the rest of the year and have frequent visits with her doctors, but she knows it’s a matter of waiting and seeing.
“I think it’s going to be a year by year thing,” Johnson said. “But I think I’ll be back in action.”