ORLANDO, Fla. — Thanks to a medical advances harnessing the expanding use of protons, doctors in Orlando are helping to treat more and more women with breast cancer — including two sisters who were diagnosed with the disease just three weeks apart.
In Central Florida, only doctors at Orlando Health are using the advanced therapy option.
When it first arrived seven years ago, proton therapy was used to treat pediatric cancers and very small areas of brain cancer due to its unique ability to spare the delicate tissue around a tumor while attacking the tumor.
Over the past two years, proton therapy has grown to tackle certain cases of breast cancer.
Among its patients were two sisters whose success stories pave the way for more survivors.
Sisters Lauren Kennedy and Jennifer Adams did everything together growing up. As adults, they’d also go on to fight cancer together at the same time.
“We’ve always been super close so we’ve been joking that this is some kind of freaky twin thing,” Jennifer said.
Lauren had just turned 29 when she found a lump that she learned was stage 3 breast cancer. Three weeks later, Jennifer was also diagnosed with a stage 3 breast cancer at age 31.
“I still don’t even believe it,” Jennifer said.
Together, they took on a taxing course of chemotherapy followed by surgery. The next step was radiation. But instead of receiving the typical form, the sisters learned they were candidates for the cutting-edge proton therapy.
“In its simplest terms it allows us to better treat patients by targeting the bad stuff and avoiding the good,” said Orlando Health radiation oncologist Dr. Patrick Kelly.
The timing of Lauren and Jennifer’s cases at such young ages is something Kelly said he’d never seen.
He said proton therapy was perfect for the sisters, whose tumors were on their left sides where hearts and lungs need protection from high-energy rays meant to kill cancer.
“Overall the radiation with protons spares the normal tissue considerably,” Kelly said.
Proton therapy does that by using a different kind of wave than standard radiation. With angled precision, it is able to safely treat a tumor with its beam set to go a certain depth inside the tissue and stop.
“Exactly where they wanted it to hit, it hit and that’s the only place it hit. It is amazing,” Jennifer said.
The sisters said it was priceless to have each other’s support while going through treatments. And, they said, teaming up to pioneer a groundbreaking treatment brings invigorating purpose to their battle.
“It feels really good to know that it’s working and its saving lives and it saved our life,” Jennifer said.
The women said they want their story to bring awareness to the importance of early detection and paying attention to your body, no matter your age.
They documented their entire journey on their Facebook page, Together we FIGHT - Two sisters battle against Breast Cancer.
As for the proton therapy, Kelly said work continues to keep moving protons forward as a therapy for even more cancers. He said liver, pancreatic, esophageal and lung cancers are some of the most difficult cancers and are the next wave for proton therapy. He said the next clinical trials are already underway.