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Cancer Survivor Thanks “Earth Angels”
Story Number is : 122009100
By Gary Woonteiler
Hospital Newspaper

Barbara D'Amico
Barbara D’Amico, a 51-year-old resident of Rockland, Ma., was in “perfect health” for most of her life. In fact, the only time she’d been to a hospital was to deliver her son, Taylor. So, when her throat was bothering her a couple of years ago, she assumed it was something routine like strep.

Her throat culture came back negative, but her tonsils still hurt for the next couple of weeks. She went to an ear-nose-throat specialist, who said that her tonsils “looked angry” and needed to be removed. Still routine stuff, Barbara thought. But then, after the surgery, she received some shocking news: One of her tonsils was malignant, and further tests needed to be performed to see if the cancer had spread. A second shock for Barbara: test results showed the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in her neck.

“It was the last thing I expected at that point in my life,” said Barbara. “I’ve always been careful with my diet, I’m not a smoker, and I was feeling fine.” While Barbara’s father had bladder cancer and died of brain cancer at age 76, her mother Mary, 87, is a three-time cancer survivor.

One-Stop Shopping
Confronted with the diagnosis of head and neck cancer, Barbara knew she faced significant challenges, and she wanted to take an active role in her upcoming treatments.

When she was referred to Commonwealth Atrius Cancer Center in Weymouth, Ma., she was very impressed with the facility and the fact that all the services she might need – medical oncology, radiation oncology, and imaging—were at the same site. ““I appreciate one-stop shopping,” she said, “but I never realized how critical this advantage would be for my medical care.”

During her treatments, she was especially grateful that she didn’t need to travel to different sites while she was feeling weak. She had PET scans and other imaging in a suite adjacent to medical oncology and radiation oncology at the Cancer Center.

Before starting treatments, to learn more about Commonwealth Atrius, Barbara went online and read about the center’s award-winning physicians and state-of-the-art technology. “I knew the value of receiving good care close to home, but I had no idea that the most comprehensive, highest-quality cancer care was just 10 miles from my house,” she said.

Best of Both Worlds
Barbara initially discussed treatment options with Dr. Claire Y. Fung, director of Radiation Oncology at the Cancer Center. “It was comforting to learn that Dr. Fung is rated one of the best doctors in the country, and it was amazing to see how advanced the center’s technology is. I was also really put at ease by how personal and compassionate Dr. Fung and her team are. Dr. Fung actually hugged me!”
Dr. Fung conferred with Barbara’s medical oncologist at the Cancer Center, Dr. Anne Roberge, as well as her ENT specialist. Together, they decided that Barbara’s treatment plan would include a combination of chemotherapy infusion and radiation therapy.

Barbara started with three, day-long, on-site sessions of chemotherapy infusions. A few weeks later, she repeated the procedure. During the same time, she underwent 20-minute radiation treatments five days a week for seven weeks. She was treated with Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), a sophisticated method of focusing the radiation on the cancer, while at the same time protecting the surrounding healthy tissue. Commonwealth Atrius also offers advanced image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT), with on-board CT imaging built into the treatment unit. This cutting-edge technology allows real-time localization of the tumor on a daily basis to ensure precise targeting of the radiation beams.

Throughout this period, her husband, Ian, whom Barbara refers to as her “rock,” and girlfriends, Dee and Ginny, took her for treatments.

While Barbara is grateful she didn’t lose her thick head of dark brown hair during treatments, she faced other issues. The treatment made her throat sore so that it was difficult to swallow. Also, her taste buds became desensitized. She needed to have a feeding tube inserted into her stomach to help keep up her nutritional and fluid intake. Even so, she became dehydrated and required frequent intravenous fluids.

“Going through all this was intense,” said Barbara, who needed to take a leave from her job as a project manager for a local company. “But I wanted to do whatever I needed to get well, and I’m thankful that my body adjusted to the challenges along the way.”
She added: “I’m a strong person, and I’m very spiritual, but it was very important for me to trust my physicians. Dr. Fung was always so focused, so calm. Dr. Roberge is so professional. They are both so caring, and the care from the whole team was just outstanding.

Earth Angels
“I look back at my experience at Commonwealth Atrius, and I think of my caregivers as earth angels,” she said. “They saved me in more ways than one.

“As tough as the process was, I never minded going in for treatments because I knew I was in the best of hands. I realized that I’m one of many patients they see all the time, but they made me feel like I was the only one. It was the best of care at the most difficult of times.”

Barbara always felt it was like a family environment at Commonwealth Atrius, and now another member of her family is a patient there. Her mother, who had survived bouts of bladder and colon cancer, was treated by Dr. Roberge for breast cancer. Recently, after taking anti-cancer medication, her mom received a good report after a round of testing, and she is still seeing Dr. Roberge for follow-ups.

Barbara will also continue with follow-ups, but she is feeling very positive. Not long ago, she had her feeding tube removed, some sense of taste has returned, and she and her family are enjoying her Italian cooking much more these days.

Barbara is now looking forward to a new life, celebrating every day with family and friends: “I have started a new job, I am feeling strong, and I have a lot to smile about. Best of all, I have ‘graduated’ from my program. What a feeling of joy and relief to go through your scans and be told you are cancer-free!”

Commonwealth Atrius Cancer Center is collaboration between Commonwealth Hematology-Oncology and Atrius Health. Dr. Claire Y. Fung serves as medical director of Radiation Oncology for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, which is one of the affiliates of Atrius Health. For more information about cancer, including screening guidelines, visit

Barbara and other cancer patients deal not only with their treatments, but with the outside world that often is as difficult to manage as the cancer therapy itself. See our feature article on cancer, employment and health insurance on Page
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