Hospitality House Helps Michigan Oncology Nurse on Her Own Cancer Journey

Author: Leslie Toldo

At just 30 years old, Mary Ann got a devastating diagnosis. She had breast cancer.  The Michigan native was living more than a thousand miles from home.

“I had great friends around, but not really a family support system,” Mary Ann said.  “I had chemo, radiation, and a single mastectomy. It was a scary time.” 

Six months later, Mary Ann found out she was pregnant.

“He was my miracle baby,” Mary Ann said, “I was told I would never have children.”

With her son by her side, Mary Ann returned to Michigan and became a nurse.  Her life was full, but in the back of her mind, she says she had a lurking fear the cancer would return.

“Every cancer patient knows, once you’re diagnosed the first time, the possibility of a recurrence is with you for the rest of your life,” Mary Ann said

In 2016, just 16 years after her first diagnosis, Mary Ann’s worst fear came true.  She had breast cancer again. 

While she now lived close to family, Mary Ann chose to take on cancer alone, for the second time.  She told her family she was having a second mastectomy as a preventative measure, something many women at high risk do.

“Sometimes with cancer patients, it’s more than you can carry on your own,” Mary Ann said. “But you have to start carrying people around you. It’s too much for one person.”

With that second cancer battle now behind her, in 2018, Mary Ann changed her nursing career path, shifting her focus to oncology.  Just two years later, she became the patient again; this time, Mary Ann was struggling with back pain, a symptom she says her doctor did not take lightly.

“He knew of my breast cancer history,” Mary Ann said. “He was immediately concerned the cancer may have spread to my bones or spine and ordered a PET scan.” 

The imaging revealed the awful truth, Mary Ann had cancer again, this time in her right armpit.  She met with a surgeon who said surgical removal was not an option.

“She said it was too dangerous for her to do because the lymph nodes were too close to nerves and a major blood vessel,” Mary Ann said. “Surgery might kill me.”

The surgeon referred Mary Ann to radiation oncologist Dr. Christian Hyde at McLaren Proton Therapy Center, part of the Karmanos Cancer Network.. Dr. Hyde and Mary Ann’s oncologist agreed chemotherapy was the best option to start Mary Ann’s treatment.

“They decided that starting chemo was the best approach to try to shrink the size of the tumors in the lymph nodes, “Mary Ann said.

She continued working while going through chemo, she said, “I was still working as an oncology nurse, giving chemo and getting chemo.”

This time, Mary Ann handled her diagnosis a little differently; she shared it with her family. 

“You can’t hide chemo,” she said. “I was going to lose my hair.  My son was older, and I’m a single parent. He needed a support system.  I also didn’t know if I was going to survive this.”

A year after starting her first round of chemotherapy, Mary Ann’s new surgeon, Dr. Lydia Choi, at Karmanos in Detroit, said she could remove the lymph nodes.

“Suddenly, I went from feeling bleak to believing there was hope, “Mary Ann said.

After surgery, Mary Ann needed radiation and would meet again with Dr. Hyde. She said, there was no question in her mind- she would have proton therapy, rather than traditional treatment, “As an oncology nurse, I went to a conference on this treatment option, so I requested from the very beginning that I have proton therapy because I was so impressed with it. “

With traditional radiation, there is a risk of damage to surrounding healthy organs and tissue. That risk is far lower with proton therapy, which delivers higher doses of radiation, specifically targeting tumors. 

“Traditional radiation is made of X-ray beams that go in one side of the patient, pass through the tumor, and keep going out the other side.  This means we are harming healthy tissue in front of and behind the patient’s tumor.  Proton therapy is different because it releases most of its energy inside the tumor,” Dr. Hyde said. “There is virtually no ‘exit dose’ with protons.  They can literally stop on a dime.”

There was a challenge, however.  Mary Ann lived more than two hours away from the McLaren Proton Therapy Center.  While the treatments have fewer side effects than traditional forms of radiation, they can be exhausting.  Mary Ann needed daily treatments.  Driving four hours round trip every day simply was not feasible.  Neither was the expense of staying at a hotel.

“There is no way I could have paid for it,” Mary Ann said. “I was on family leave for six months. I only got 60 percent of part-time pay.”

Fortunately, Mary Ann’s nurse navigator at the center told her about the Hospitality House at McLaren Flint.  Hospitality House provides low-cost and, in cases like Mary Ann’s, free accommodations for patients and their caregivers.

“It was a Godsend,” Mary Ann said. “It turned the impossible to the possible, and I could financially and logistically get the proton therapy.”

Hospitality House boasts a large kitchen area, that can accommodate four families at once.   Caregivers who land at the Hospitality House during a family member’s medical emergency will even find food, drinks, and toiletries, which can be a big comfort in a time of crisis.

Along with 32 guest rooms, Hospitality House has a library, craft, and game rooms, several large sitting areas, a workout room, and laundry facilities. 

The amenities made Mary Ann comfortable in her new “home away from home”, but she said the Hospitality House offers so much more than the comforts you can see and touch. 

“You have the opportunity to get to know other people, share your stories,” Mary Ann said of her fellow guests. “The stories may not be identical, but in some way, we are all carrying similar burdens. Other people may not understand- even your closest family and friends.”

Mary Ann bravely took on cancer three times.  Through it all, she persevered and came out stronger on the other side, she says.

“You can only cross one bridge at a time,” she said. “It’s natural to worry, but you have to look at today and deal with the challenges, embrace the victories, and be grateful for the beauty while keeping the bigger plan in mind.” 

To learn more about the McLaren Proton Therapy Center, visit

For information about the Hospitality House at McLaren Flint, and how you can help its mission, click here.