Kylie Schwartz’s Most Important Graduation Yet
No caps. No gowns. Just a coin — the 4,000th one minted.
Kylie Schwartz’s graduation ceremony may have looked different than other graduation ceremonies happening during the month of May, but it marked a major milestone in her life and at Northwestern Medicine Chicago Proton Center.
Kylie, 23, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, was the 4,000th patient to complete proton therapy treatment at Chicago Proton Center — the only proton center in Illinois.
Patients who complete treatment receive a coin, which features the iconic Chicago skyline, the center’s location, a unique patient number and the word “believe.”
The Size of a Candy Bar
In August 2018, Kylie developed a rash that came with 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 Kylie. “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 noticing an enlarged lymph node above her collarbone, Schwartz went back to her physician. Scans showed a mass in her chest about the size of a candy bar. She was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare, aggressive cancer that’s typically found in the torso, arms and legs of young patients. It had spread to her spine, arms, pelvis, legs and bone marrow.
After months of chemotherapy in Colorado, during which she lost 70 pounds and her thick, long hair, Schwartz was referred to Stephen Mihalcik, MD, PhD, a radiation oncologist at 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.”
How Proton Therapy Works
Proton therapy uses positively charged atomic particles instead of standard X-rays to eliminate cancer cells. The chances for complications and side effects are lower with proton therapy versus standard radiation treatment due to the ability to precisely target tumors, sparing healthy tissue.
“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.”
Short Stay in Chicago
While she was a patient at Northwestern Medicine, Kylie and her parents rented an apartment in the Chicago suburbs. For two months, Kylie split her time between proton therapy at Chicago Proton Center and chemotherapy at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. Her tumor has shrunk to nearly a third of its original size. Kylie is returning home to Colorado and looking toward her future.
“I’m truly blessed to be alive and live the healthiest life possible,” says Kylie. “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.”
Kylie calls her graduation from Chicago Proton Center her “most important graduation ceremony yet.”