Assisted by powerful technology, the care team at Good Samaritan Hospital helps Carol LaChiana keep singing, laughing and lifting spirits.
By Melissa F. Pheterson
Some disc jockeys begin spinning records as teenagers. Carol LaChiana, on the other hand, was already a grandmother. “My son was asked to DJ a birthday party,” explains the 77-year-old. “But he couldn’t, so I filled in. The next day, my friend gave me a red tambourine and placed an ad in the PennySaver, and I was in business!” Inspired by the soundtrack to her high-school years in Brooklyn, LaChiana specialized in doo-wop parties, traveling to regional party halls from her home in Nanuet.
During treatment for bladder cancer 10 years ago at Good Samaritan Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth), LaChiana made known her sense of music and humor. After chemotherapy, when lying down and shaking limbs is recommended, she informed staff: “I’m going home to shake, rattle and roll.” The bladder cancer occurred twice — “playing hide-and-seek with me” — in 2007 and 2008. Once in remission, LaChiana turned her attention to caring for her husband, John, who has Parkinson’s disease.
But in 2017, just after Thanksgiving, LaChiana noticed a lump on her left breast. “Luckily, I had a mammogram the next month.” She returned to Good Samaritan Hospital, where a biopsy confirmed three growths in her breast: two benign, one malignant.
“This was the third time cancer found me,” LaChiana says. “At first I thought: ‘Come on, can you give me a break?’ But I wasn’t going to let it get me down.”
“Carol’s breast cancer was Stage 1 and responsive to anti-estrogen therapy,” says John Rescigno, MD, Director of Radiation Oncology at Good Samaritan Hospital. “She was a good candidate for what we call breast conservation therapy, which allowed her to avoid a mastectomy by having a small excision, followed by radiotherapy.”
Karen Karsif, MD, Medical Director at Good Samaritan Hospital’s Center for Breast Health, performed the lumpectomy. From there, LaChiana’s care team utilized a new state-of-the-art-machine, known as the TrueBeam Linear Accelerator. At the forefront of cancer-fighting technology, this device delivers powerful and precise radiation through high-energy beams, aimed with accuracy to the millimeter.
Dramatically advanced from traditional radiation, the TrueBeam Linear Accelerator system maps the most direct path to cancer cells in tumors, taking deadly aim at its target while skirting healthy tissue. Since arriving at Good Samaritan Hospital last year, the device has shrunk tumors for hundreds of patients. In LaChiana’s case, it killed any abnormal cells that might have remained in the breast after the surgery.
“Nearly real-time image guidance makes the treatment more precise and accurate,” says Dr. Rescigno. “This allows us to spare healthy tissue, avoid side effects and safely deliver higher doses when needed. In addition, we can decrease the time it takes to treat, which improves patient comfort and outcomes. We are quite privileged to have this technology at our disposal.”
To relieve LaChiana’s anxiety and encourage her humor, the team played 1950s music during treatment. “We laughed together, and it made the treatment less scary,” says LaChiana.
“I call my doctors, nurses and care team my ‘angels,’” she says. “I couldn’t get over the empathy they showed. It’s not always medicine alone that cures a person who is ill. If you have the heartfelt feeling that they care, from the minute the receptionist greets you – it’s half the battle.”
Dr. Rescigno says his team fosters an environment that focuses on patients. “This includes keeping the patients well-informed and comfortable with the decisions they make, and assessing emotional needs, as well. We strive to make this difficult time as pleasant as possible under the circumstances.
“I am very proud of the team we have assembled that collectively has many decades of expertise in radiotherapy,” he adds. “One can have all of the technology in the world, but it is only as good as the people running it.”
High spirits, bright outlook
Throughout her treatment, LaChiana says she drew beauty and strength from patients and families in the waiting room. “You nod at each other and smile, and then you start talking; that’s when you find out there’s someone with prostate cancer, stomach cancer, colon cancer. Everyone is caring for someone else. You forget your troubles for the moment and you say, ‘Wow.’” She was so moved by the people she met and connections she made that she’s writing a short story about her experience.
After most treatment sessions, LaChiana drove to see her husband. “I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself,” she says. “I’m there every day for my husband, John. I sing to families in the nursing home, to women with Alzheimer’s; you can see, they still know the lyrics to songs from their childhood. I make families smile and laugh.”
Her sunny outlook, she knows, begins with herself.
“It’s not funny to have cancer, but I strongly believe I will beat this, that it won’t come back this time,” she says. “I tell myself: ‘Be strong; keep your chins up.’ Yes, I said chins — It’s what happens at my age. And once I know the cancer’s gone, I’ll treat myself to Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Cancer Care at WMCHealth
Westchester Medical Center 914.246.6600
Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital 914.493.7997
MidHudson Regional Hospital 845.483.5997
Good Samaritan Hospital Radiation Oncology 845.368.5185; Medical Oncology 845.368.8500
St. Anthony Community Hospital Infusion Center 845.987.5167
HealthAlliance Hospitals 845.334.3099
Photos By John Rizzo