West Michigan Woman Finds Hope in Proton Therapy After Losing Mom to Breast Cancer

This advanced cancer treatment option spares the heart unnecessary radiation for breast cancer patients.

Author: Jasmine Brown


“For me, with having the cancer in my left breast, I definitely wanted to miss the heart and that was something they were able to do with proton therapy.”

Women are often told to know their breasts. That includes knowing what they look like and feel like by doing self-exams regularly.

Melissa Brown did just that, and in sticking to this routine, she found a lump. That discovery led to test results that were positive for stage 3 breast cancer.

“Hearing that I had been diagnosed with the same thing that took my mom’s life - it was terrifying,” Melissa said.

Melissa’s mother battled breast cancer in her left breast for two years. Her treatment consisted of a lumpectomy and radiation. Months after she finished treatment, Melissa’s mom started having more health issues.

“We didn’t know about proton therapy then,” said Melissa. “She was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer, and I thought she would be fine. After treatment, she began to have back pain and was diagnosed with costochondritis, which her doctors said was inflammation in her ribs from the radiation she received. She was hospitalized for a collapsed lung, pneumonia and infection. Then we got the news that she had full blown stage 4 cancer.”

Her mother passed in 2017. With the loss of her mom, Melissa continued ministering to abused women and children through her horse therapy program called Bridle of Hope. Two years later, in 2019, she received her breast cancer diagnosis. Now, Melissa had to seek out her own path of hope.

“I think everybody fears hearing a cancer diagnosis and having to go through treatment, but I think I had even more fear than most people because of the experience with my mom. I thought, ‘If my mom can’t make it, how am I going to make it?’”

One of Melissa’s friends helped bring some of that hope into the picture. Her friend told her about proton beam therapy, and how the treatment is targeted to deliver proton radiation doses to the tumor, without an exit dose delivering radiation through the body.

“I was scheduled to get traditional radiation at a treatment center about 20 minutes away from my house,” said Melissa. “But when a friend of mine told me that proton therapy does less damage to the body, tissue, and organs, I wanted to learn more. So, I started doing my own research and came across the McLaren Proton Therapy Center. It’s the closest proton center to where I Iive.”

Melissa lives in Byron Center, just outside of Grand Rapids. She made the phone call to the McLaren Proton Therapy Center and decided to take a two-hour drive to Flint and learn more about this specialized treatment option.

“Proton therapy was a good option for Melissa due to her left-sided breast cancer,” said Christian Hyde, MD, DABR, radiation oncologist at the McLaren Proton Therapy Center and Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint. “When we treat left-sided breast cancer, it’s vital that we spare the heart, because radiation can increase the risk of heart attacks down the road.” 

“For me, with having the cancer in my left breast, I definitely wanted to miss the heart and that was something they were able to do with proton therapy,” said Melissa.

When Melissa decided on going through proton therapy treatments, she made the choice to stay at the Hospitality House at McLaren. This convenient lodging allowed her to come to Flint on Monday and stay for the week. When she finished treatments on Friday, she would go back home for the weekend and repeat the schedule the next week. Her routine was everything but uncomfortable.

“I would walk over to the Proton Center for treatment, which went pretty quickly,” said Melissa. “Then I would come back to the House and immediately go to the exercise room and get a little workout in. The Hospitality House has a very comfortable setting, including the library and fireplaces. It’s much nicer than staying at a hotel. I really like the accommodations they have there.”

Melissa said she barely had side effects to the proton therapy treatment. She experienced mild fatigue, which she says the post-treatment workouts helped to overcome. She also said the treatment produced a small skin reaction, like a sunburn, which healed quickly. 

“I’m really proud of Melissa,” reflected Dr. Hyde. “She stuck with her treatment and kept a positive attitude even though it wasn’t always easy. I’m glad that she sought us out and was willing to travel for something new.”

Melissa now has renewed faith her cancer journey is one she will share for years to come and has found a second way to spread hope to others.

“My treatments went very well, I’m doing well, and I feel very good,” said Melissa. “I’ve been telling other people about proton therapy. It’s definitely something I recommend to others.”

To find out if proton therapy is the right treatment for you, visit www.mclaren.org/proton_form.