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Barbara Le Breton, with shoulder length white hair and and wearing a black blouse and pink jacket, has her arms around two boys at a table. A girl smiles in the background. There is a birthday cake on the table in front of them with candles shaped like "74."
Barbara Le Breton, with shoulder length white hair and and wearing a black blouse and pink jacket, has her arms around two boys at a table. A girl smiles in the background. There is a birthday cake on the table in front of them with candles shaped like "74."

Proton Therapy: Precision in Cancer Treatment

Barbara Faced Another Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment Limitations

More than 25 years after surviving stage 2 breast cancer, Barbara Le Breton, 74, of Lombard, Illinois, was having trouble swallowing. She made an appointment with her primary care physician to get it checked out. To find out more, her physician recommended an endoscopy along with her routine colonoscopy. 

The endoscopy revealed that Barbara had a tumor growing inside her esophagus. After a biopsy (a procedure to remove tissue for further testing), she was diagnosed with stage 3 adenocarcinoma esophageal cancer.

"I was scared, but not as scared as when I was diagnosed with breast cancer," she says. "Having been through it once, I sort of knew what to expect in terms of the treatment."

I consider myself very lucky.
— Barbara Le Breton

Esophageal cancer often goes undetected until symptoms develop, like trouble swallowing, chest pain or weight loss from difficulty eating.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Regurgitation of undigested food
  • Vomiting blood
  • Black or tarry stool
  • Hoarseness or a long-term cough that does not go away within two weeks
  • Heartburn

Getting the Most Out of Treatment

Barbara's oncologist recommended chemotherapy and radiation to treat the tumor before surgery but Barbara had already undergone radiation for her breast cancer treatment. More radiation to the parts of her body that had already been exposed to radiation would put Barbara at a higher risk of side effects so her oncologist recommended proton radiation therapy.

Proton radiation uses positively charged protons to destroy cancer cells. Proton particles can be stopped right after they move through a tumor, minimizing damage to healthy tissue around tumors. Barbara needed the targeted approach of proton therapy to minimize radiation exposure to her previously exposed chest cavity.

"I was fearful of having more radiation to my chest because my heart and lungs were probably already compromised in some way," she says. "I was not even sure I'd be able to have the surgery because I had a fairly large tumor. It was a question of whether or not the proton therapy and chemotherapy would be effective in shrinking it, and they were."

Barbara, who lives 30 minutes from the Northwestern Medicine Proton Center, the only proton center in Illinois, went through 28 sessions of proton radiation treatment.

"Proton radiation is a powerful tool in the fight against cancer," explains Stephen Mihalcik, MD, PhD, the Proton Center medical director. "In cases of previous radiation exposure, the reductions in radiation in nearby tissues can reduce the risk of significant and sometimes fatal side effects. In the right circumstances, proton radiation can make all the difference."

Life After Treatment

Since Barbara had proton therapy, chemotherapy and surgery to treat her esophageal cancer, she's thriving.

"I consider myself very lucky," she explains. "At my stage and type of cancer, I was not expecting to live as long as I have. My main goal was to live for a few more years to spend time with my grandkids. I got that time and more."

Barbara, who is now retired from a career in the medical field, says her life has not changed all that much after treatment. She is able to eat regularly and enjoy one of her favorite drinks — coffee. "Once I recovered, I was able to do the things that I did before," she says. "I babysit a lot for my grandkids. They're kind of my whole world."

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