Protons prove to be only hope for New York woman fighting late-effect cancer from photon radiation

2015 is a new year for Mary Lanuti. A new year to appreciate the blessings of good health, once again.

For 13 years, Mary had lived cancer free, tending to the home and family she loves.

But an occasional side effect of the conventional radiation used to successfully treat Mary’s rectal cancer back in 2000 finally caught up to her. And Mary was shocked to find she had cancer once again.

“They said it was a radiation-induced sarcoma,” Mary recalls. “They told me it was very, very rare. I said, ‘Why me?’ I couldn’t believe it. But then I figured, I’d beat it once. I’d beat it again.”

And this time, a different kind of radiation — proton beam radiation — would help her do so.

In October 2009, Mary experienced a sudden onset of intense pain running the length of her right leg. “It got to be so bad, I could hardly walk,” Mary says.

A local neurologist administered two injections to the lumbar region of her back and the pain generally subsided. And for the next 18 months, Mary lived at her Endwell, New York, home relatively pain free.

When the leg pain returned, it was even more intense than she had remembered. Mary opted for another lumbar injection. And that required an MRI be taken. The image highlighted a solid tumor on the sacrum, the triangular bone at the base of Mary’s spine.

Her neurologist and oncologist determined it was a cancerous and suggested she seek a second opinion.

In February 2013, Mary traveled three and a half hours by medivan to New York City for an assessment by doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. They quickly confirmed the diagnosis of her hometown doctors.

“Being a sarcoma, the tumor, I understood to believe, was the worst possible cancer you can get,” Mary says. “My husband was by my side from day one. My sisters and my kids, they were there for me, too.”

She endured six three-day chemotherapy treatments with minimal side effects. The first treatment was conducted at Memorial Sloan Kettering. The remaining treatments were given much closer to home, at Our Lady of Lourdes Memorial Hospital in Binghamton, New York. “It would run its course 12 hours a day with all the chemicals they had to give me,” she says. Doctors also worked to help manage Mary’s pain through much of 2013.

“They were still trying to figure out what to do with that mass,” says Mary. “My orthopedic surgeon at Sloan said he could operate, but wouldn’t know until he did if he might have to cut my sciatic nerve — which would mean no feeling from my knee down — or amputate my leg.”

Mary wasn’t enthused by those prospects, even if they were worst-case. Eventually, Mary’s surgeon withdrew his recommendation. The surgery, he determined, would do more harm than good.

“Three weeks later, I got a call from the radiologist at Sloan,” Mary says. “He said traditional radiation was out completely because that’s what caused this cancer. He said protons were the best chance of recovering completely.”

Mary and her husband moved into a short-stay apartment in Somerset, New Jersey. The week after Christmas 2013, she began five weeks of proton treatments at ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Somerset.

“Forty-two treatments, five days a week,” Mary says matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t painful. I didn’t have the side effects. I did get a small radiation burn; it itched me. And I had no problem with my urinary tract or my bowels.

“My GP, he said he can’t believe how well I am doing,” Mary continues. “How I look. How I move. He calls me a wonder woman. I’m like my old self again.”

But over the summer, Mary experienced a health scare. And she prepared herself for bad news. It was anything but.

After analyzing a PET scan of Mary in October 2014, doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering declared there were no cancer cells to be found. Not a one.

“I am cancer free,” Mary says with joy. “My family is ecstatic. They are so happy and thankful. Christmas was a very special celebration.”