Newswise — SEATTLE – In 2014, more than 200,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the United States, and about 40,000 of them will die, according to the American Cancer Society. While many types of breast cancer are curable, conventional treatment methods can expose the heart, lungs, and other organs to radiation resulting in an increased risk of side effects such as coronary artery disease, lung scarring, and secondary malignancies. Side-effects are especially common in patients with reoccurring cancers as their bodies are subjected to multiple rounds of treatment.

Robin Baird first discovered a lump in her breast in 2001. “I was lying in bed reading a book and I dropped my hand and felt a lump on my chest. I thought ’I’ve never felt that before.’” She went to the doctor the next day, and after a mammogram and lumpectomy, Robin was diagnosed with breast cancer. Robin followed the lumpectomy with chemotherapy and radiation, thinking her battle with cancer was complete.

However, in 2003 Robin discovered a new lump in her breast, this time while doing a self-scan. It was cancer and the course of treatment was a mastectomy and another round of chemotherapy. The cancer came back in 2005, this time in her armpit. It was a more complicated tumor that wrapped around her artery and the nerves. Because of the location – they couldn’t get clear margins - the doctors determined that she was not a good candidate for radiation therapy. Once again she opted for surgery, but because of her previous bouts of radiation, Robin’s weakened immune system was unable to heal properly and she had to spend a long time in the hospital recovering. In 2007 Robin was again diagnosed with breast cancer, and again radiation was ruled out as a therapy option. Instead, she underwent painful guided-wire surgery and another lengthy recovery.

Then, in 2011, Robin and her doctors discovered a hot spot under her arm. It was managed with medication until 2013, when it started to grow. At this point, Robin’s doctors had exhausted all chemotherapy options and were reluctant to operate due to her difficulty recovering. It was at this time that Robin was introduced to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy.

“I met with Dr. Rengan and was immediately impressed,” said Robin. “My medical history is so complicated that I keep a five-page Excel document with everything written down. When I first met with Dr. Rengan he was on top of it and actually knew my medical history. And he said ‘I think I can help you.’”

SCCA Proton Therapy, A ProCure Center, provides patients with an advanced and highly precise form of radiation treatment that can help improve tumor control while minimizing the side effects from treatment. Proton therapy can be particularly effective in cancers located on or near vital organs, such as left breast cancer.

“When I met Robin for the first time, we did discuss that she had a high risk for experiencing significant complications due to the cumulative effects of her prior treatments on the organs in close proximity to her cancer,” said, Dr. Rengan, Medical Director at SCCA Proton Therapy, A ProCure Center, Associate Professor, Department of Radiation Oncology, University of Washington School of Medicine, and Radiation Oncologist, University of Washington Medical Center. “Through weighing both the risks and potential benefits Robin and I agreed that proton therapy would be her best route for treatment and could help by targeting the tumor while minimizing the dose to the surrounding tissues.”

While undergoing treatment, Robin found refuge at SCCA Proton Therapy, A ProCure Center. “The Center is a sanctuary. Everyone on staff is an incredible person, and I was really happy there.” Robin did experience some painful side-effects due to nerve damage from her previous treatments, but she was able to complete all proton therapy treatments and her outlook is good.

Robin now seeks to share her story with others. In 2014 she had the opportunity to testify before the Washington State Health Care Authority about her experience with proton therapy. “I was happy to testify about my experience. To be able to share my story and tell the committee ‘it’s a God-send to have someone there who can help you when you’ve run out of other options’ was a great experience.”

An avid traveler, Robin has refused to let cancer stop her love of travel and adventure. As soon as she finished her treatments at SCCA Proton Therapy, A ProCure Center, she took a two-week trip to Hawaii to recover. She has two grown sons and is looking forward to someday travelling to China and Southwest Asia.

Robin maintains an amazingly positive outlook on life. She laughs now when she thinks about all her concerns when she underwent her first treatment more than a decade ago.

“I used to worry about losing my hair. I’ve lost it three times now and I’ve turned out to be one of the best bald-headed women I’ve seen. And quite frankly, my hair grew back better than before and I dyed it red. My only regret is that I didn’t dye it red 20 years ago. I was also concerned about having a scar on my chest, and now I have scars all over. And now I look at it and laugh because it’s not important at all.”

In fact, Robin views cancer as a gift that enabled her to focus on what was truly important to her. “For all the hard parts, I don’t think I would trade that. I would accept the hard parts just to get that clarity. Otherwise I think my life would have been wasted.”

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