Colorado Woman Becomes the 4,000th Patient to Finish Treatment at Northwestern Medicine Chicago Proton Center

Northwestern Medicine
Cancer Care/Oncology May 05, 2019
Warrenville, IL – The month of May is a time for graduations. At Northwestern Medicine Chicago Proton Center, graduation ceremonies are held every Thursday for cancer patients who finish treatment. But the ceremony on Thursday, May 2, marked a major milestone in more ways than one. Kylie Schwartz of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, became the 4,000th patient to graduate from the Chicago Proton Center, marking the end of her proton therapy treatment. Each graduate receives a challenge coin, which features the iconic Chicago skyline, the center’s location and the unique patient number. Challenge coins started in WWI with the Army Air Corps and today, every military unit has a challenge coin.

“I feel so honored to have the number 4,000 on my challenge coin,” says 23-year-old Schwartz. “Everything in my life has been so negative with this cancer diagnosis, but the last month has brought me more blessings than I could ever have imagined.”

In August 2018, Schwartz had a rash that wouldn’t go away. She then developed chest and back pains, along with a horrible cough.

“At first, it felt like I was having a heart attack, and then it felt like all my bones were breaking,” explains Schwartz. “Doctors kept telling me it was anxiety, but I knew something more serious was wrong. I had to be an advocate for myself and speak up."

After finding an enlarged lymph node above her collarbone, Schwartz went back to the doctor and scans showed a 13x7 centimeter mass in her chest – about the size of a candy bar. The cancer had spread to her spine, arms, pelvis, legs and bone marrow. She was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma – a rare, aggressive cancer that’s typically found in the torso, arms and legs of young patients. Even though Schwartz was 22 years old at the time, she would be treated by the Pediatrics team. Weighing 250 pounds with beautiful, long hair, Schwartz quickly lost 70 pounds and all her hair due to chemotherapy treatments. After months of chemo in Colorado, Schwartz was referred to Stephen Mihalcik, MD, PhD, a radiation oncologist at the Chicago Proton Center.

“When Kylie discovered this tumor, it was large and quite impressive,” says Dr. Mihalcik. “It was over the heart, extending into the neck and pushing on the blood vessels and lungs. It responded very well to chemotherapy and proton therapy is intended to get rid of any cancer that remains in that area.”

Proton therapy uses positively charged atomic particles – instead of the standard x-rays used in conventional radiation therapy. The chances for complications and side effects are lower with proton therapy versus standard radiation treatment. Protons deposit much of their energy (or dose) directly in the tumor and then stop, whereas conventional radiation continues to deposit the dose beyond the tumor.

“We can reduce the amount of radiation to critical things that can cause long-term side effects,” explains Dr. Mihalcik. “For Kylie, that means the heart, lungs, esophagus and breast tissue. This is important for Kylie because she’s young and has many decades ahead of her. Radiation – no matter what type you use – where it hits, can cause side effects even decades later.”

In March, Schwartz and her parents rented an apartment in the Chicago suburbs. For the next two months, Schwartz split her time between proton therapy at the Chicago Proton Center and chemotherapy at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. Today, Schwartz’s tumor has shrunk to 4x2 centimeters and she loves her life more than ever. She’s excited to graduate from the Chicago Proton Center, calling it, “my most important graduation ceremony yet.”

Schwartz will return home to Colorado by May 12, so that she can attend the Luke Combs concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The country singer is planning to send his makeup team to Schwartz’s house to do her makeup before the concert, then she’ll get to ride in a limo and meet Combs backstage at the concert. Schwartz will continue more chemotherapy treatments in Colorado until the end of September.

“I’m truly blessed to be alive and live the healthiest life possible,” says Schwartz. “I plan to have a life after cancer. I want to go back to work, finish college and start my own foundation – one that helps cancer patients of all ages. This entire experience has changed the way I look at life. I now have something to prove.”

Northwestern Medicine has the only proton center in the state of Illinois. For more information, visit www.chicagoprotoncenter.com.
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