When a nagging cough led to the discovery of large b-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Richmond, Texas resident Molly Allen sought the guidance of the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center to treat the cancer with little interruption to her daily life.
A then 39-year-old wife and mother of four, Molly says her cough began when she and her family were on vacation in Colorado. It wasn’t until four weeks later that she decided to see her family doctor.
Being a mom first and foremost
“When you're a mom, it's all about putting your kids first. Sometimes keeping up with your health gets shifted to the bottom of the list,” she said.
An x-ray revealed a large mass the size of a golf ball in Molly’s lung next to her heart. Her physician immediately ordered a CT scan and referred her to a pulmonologist.
Within two weeks, the tumor doubled in size and grew from a golf ball to the size of a tennis ball. The official diagnosis was large b-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The tumor would continue to grow to the size of a grapefruit before Molly could begin chemotherapy.
During this time, Molly leaned heavily on her family and friends for support and encouragement. She sought guidance and advice from friends with experience dealing with cancer.
“I had a pretty large support system from my family, friends and church,” said Molly. “In fact, it was a friend who directed me to MD Anderson and first told me about proton therapy.”
Receiving proton therapy treatment
Proton therapy is an advanced type of radiation treatment that uses a beam of protons to irradiate – or deliver radiation – directly to the tumor, destroying cancer cells while sparing surrounding healthy tissue and other critical areas or vital organs.
“Like Molly’s, many lymphomas occur in the chest near vital organs, such as the heart, lungs or esophagus, so it can be difficult to get the high doses of radiation needed to the tumor without causing damage to those sensitive areas,” explained James D. Cox, M.D., professor of Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson and Molly’s physician. “With proton therapy, we create individualized treatment plans to precisely target even the most difficult to reach tumors while minimizing the damage to healthy tissues and vital organs.”
In November 2008, Molly started her treatment at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center every day, Monday through Friday, for four weeks.
“Molly’s particular type of tumor made proton radiation therapy and ideal treatment option for her. We were able to deliver the highest dose of radiation directly to the tumor while limiting the dose to her heart, which is very sensitive to radiation,” said Cox.
Molly responded well to treatment and experienced few side effects, which allowed her to keep her daily life as normal as possible, even while undergoing treatment for cancer.
Life after cancer
Most importantly, Molly is now cancer free. In fact, during her follow-up appointment in 2013, Molly learned she was pregnant and, in January 2014, gave birth to her fifth child, a son named Max. It had been nine years -- and cancer -- since her last baby. This pregnancy was more difficult but, fortunately, Molly didn't experience any major problems.
"After Max was born, my doctor said, 'I've never been happier for any couple than when I delivered your baby'," Molly says. "Max wasn't just miraculous for us; he touched a lot of lives."
She said she has little to no residual scarring on her heart and lungs from proton therapy, which is something she and her doctors hoped for from the beginning of treatment.
Since completing treatment, Molly she has returned to her normal routine, enjoying time with her husband and children, taking her kids to little league and soccer games, and walking the family’s two dogs.
“Part of being well means I’m back to my busy life,” she said.
“With proton therapy, we create individualized treatment plans to precisely target even the most difficult to reach tumors while minimizing the damage to healthy tissues and vital organs.”
Dr. James Cox
Professor, Department of Radiation Oncology