June 24, 2022 by John Fernandez
Two-Time Breast Cancer Survivor: I’m Grateful for Proton Therapy at Miami Cancer Institute
In October of 2017, Sharon Prolow felt a lump in her breast that turned out to be cancer. Following a double mastectomy in her hometown of Jupiter, Florida, and treatment with the hormone-blocking drug Tamoxifen, the 51-year-old financial planner and mother of two resumed her busy life, confident she had put the experience behind her.
But then the lump came back.
“I was terrified when the cancer returned,” recalled Mrs. Prolow, pictured above with her husband, son and daughter. “I got the call on my 50th birthday last year. I’ll never forget that moment. I had felt that having a double mastectomy would take care of everything, but it didn’t.”
(Watch now: The Baptist Health News Team hears from patient Sharon Prolow and her medical oncologist, Siddaratha Venkatappa, M.D. Video by Carol Higgins and Anthony Vivian.)
Mrs. Prolow’s oncologist suggested she would need to travel to Boston or New York for an extended time to treat her recurrent breast cancer, a prospect that was devastating to her son, Blake, then a junior in high school, and her daughter, Kayla, a freshman at the University of Miami.
“I knew I wanted to be alive for another 50 years to watch my children grow up and see my future grandchildren,” explained Mrs. Prolow. “So, this time I didn’t want to just rely on a local, convenient treatment plan. I wanted to go out there and do my research to find out what was best. I went down to see Miami Cancer Institute and saw they had all of the cutting-edge technology that was needed to treat recurrent cancer and they had it all under one roof.”
Her initial visit included appointments with numerous specialists including a surgeon, radiation oncologist and her medical oncologist, Siddaratha Venkatappa, M.D., who explained the Institute’s multidisciplinary team approach.
“With recurrent breast cancer, there aren’t any set guidelines,” Dr. Venkatappa said. “It goes by our experience, the patient’s circumstances and the treatment they had previously — and so it requires a collaborative approach. We presented her case to the tumor board — a regular meeting where a group of specialists jointly develops the best treatment plan that fits each unique patient.”
Mrs. Prolow said she was grateful “to all the doctors, but Dr. Venkatappa, especially, solidified my whole treatment plan. I was able to do it all under one roof and very quickly.”
“I was in the Perfect Hands”
Starr Mautner, M.D., a breast surgeon at Miami Cancer Institute, performed the surgery to remove the tumor and exchange the implants Mrs. Prolow had received after her first operation.
“Dr. Mautner left no stone unturned,” said Mrs. Prolow. “When she told me she’d get it all and the cancer was not going to come back, I felt assured that I was in the perfect hands.”
Once she recovered from surgery, Mrs. Prolow faced aggressive chemotherapy over the course of 18 weeks. She recalls having reservations about undergoing such extensive chemo.
“The first thing I thought was: ‘oh no, I’m going to lose my hair.’ Unfortunately, many female patients don’t go through chemotherapy because of the fear of hair loss. But Miami Cancer Institute had just introduced a new scalp cooling system called the Paxman system, which not only helps you keep the majority of your hair, but does it in such an easy way. There’s a big psychological aspect to that; being able to feel like yourself.”
In Dr. Venkatappa’s view, taking care of patients in a holistic way differentiates Miami Cancer Institute from other cancer centers.
‘Everything is Here Under One Roof’
“My role as the ‘quarterback’ of Sharon’s care team is not just to treat the diagnosis, but to take care of all her needs — her emotional needs, psychological needs and physical needs,” said Dr. Venkatappa. “Whether it’s a psychiatrist or an exercise physiologist or an acupuncture specialist or a massage therapist or nutritionist, everything is here under one roof. That helps the patient tremendously and improves their overall outcome too.”
Mrs. Prolow’s radiation oncologist, Marcio Fagundes, M.D., medical director of radiation oncology at Miami Cancer Institute, found she was an excellent candidate for proton therapy due to the location of her recurrent tumor. The Institute is the only cancer center in South Florida, and one of fewer than 30 centers nationwide, that offers this advanced form of radiation treatment which uses particles to precisely target tumors without causing damage to surrounding tissues.
“I feel proton therapy is one of the reasons that I’m going to be alive for many years,” said Mrs. Prolow. “It was something I knew I wanted to receive because my family has a strong history of heart disease and traditional radiation therapy can sometimes cause damage to the heart that shows up years afterward. I had no idea it was so rare, so finding out that I could get this treatment near my home made me feel like all the worlds were coming together for me.”
Family, friends and members of her care team surrounded Mrs. Prolow on the day she rang the bell to celebrate the end of her proton treatment. Even Dr. Fagundes, who was overseas, was able to share in the special moment via live video chat.
“That day, I felt like I had put this awful chapter of my life behind me. I felt so thankful to everyone at Miami Cancer Institute for making this happen,” Mrs. Prolow remembers. “The fact that I was able to receive my treatment near my home was such a blessing for me and my family. It meant the world to me. I’m so grateful to my husband, Bruce, my daughter and my son. I’ve always been the rock in the family, but they had to be the rock and they were always there for me.”
Being a two-time breast cancer survivor has changed Mrs. Prolow’s outlook on life.
“This experience has led me to love my family and friends even more,” she says. “It puts the world in a whole new light for me, in that I’m able to see the colors and the rainbows and the good in people. I’m going to lead this next chapter of my life and it’s going to be filled with love and happiness and thankfulness and it’s going to be filled with giving back.”