When Paula Vargas started complaining about random headaches and problems seeing out of her right eye, the thriving, 27-year-old lawyer thought that stress from work might be causing the issues. After seeing her doctor in her native city of Bogota, Colombia, scans and tests revealed something much more serious.
Ms. Vargas was diagnosed with a chordoma, a rare type of cancer that occurs in the bones of the skull base and spine. “This was a shock to me and my family, I was a healthy woman and nothing can prepare you for this,” said Ms. Vargas.
Chordomas are complicated tumors to treat due to the involvement of critical structures such as the brainstem and spinal cord. They can also come back after treatment — many times in the same place as the first tumor.
After undergoing surgery in Colombia to remove the majority of the tumor, she was told by her doctors that proton therapy would be the best course of action to finish treating her chordoma. Unfortunately, proton therapy is not available in Colombia.
An advanced form of radiation treatment, proton therapy uses high-energy beams to treat tumors. Unlike traditional radiation therapy, which uses X-rays, proton therapy uses streams of particles called protons to deliver the radiation dose to the cancer cells. One of the benefits of proton therapy is that the radiation dose is delivered solely to the tumor without damaging the surrounding healthy tissue. Miami Cancer Institute offers one of the world’s most comprehensive and advanced radiation oncology programs, including South Florida’s first proton therapy center.
Through the recommendation of a family member, she reached out to Baptist Health International, to explore her options. That’s when she met Jacqueline Bachelier, a senior international patient services coordinator with Baptist Health International. “In Paula’s case, it was like I gained a sister,” said Bachelier. “Because we are in such constant contact with these patients over a period of time, they truly become like an extension of our family,” she added. Baptist Health International makes the initial consultation with a patient’s doctor to review the case and assess treatment needs. Once the case is taken on, medical records and imaging are obtained and other logistics such as visas, travel arrangements and insurance coverage are coordinated.
“This was a very rare tumor, typically these patients are evaluated in a multidisciplinary setting, they require surgery first and then radiation therapy afterwards,” said Rupesh Kotecha, M.D., a radiation oncologist and chief of radiosurgery at Miami Cancer Institute, who oversaw Paula’s course of treatment.
During initial tests at Miami Cancer Institute, Ms. Vargas was shocked to learn that her tumor had come back in just a few months, requiring her to have two additional surgeries to remove the tumor before her treatment. Vitaly Siomin, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Miami Neuroscience Instituteand Miami Cancer Institute performed the surgeries.
Ms. Vargas then began her treatment, which involved multiple sessions of proton therapy as well as the use of CyberKnife™ technology, another modality that delivers high doses of radiation precisely – with millimeter-accuracy – to tumors in virtually any location in the body. Having both of these technologies available at the cancer center allowed her physician team to combine the best of each, to personalize her treatment.
After having spent nearly a year in Miami, Ms. Vargas recently celebrated what she calls a victory for her and her family by ringing the bell three times at Miami Cancer Institute to mark the end of her treatment. “I’m grateful to get this second chance to live my life and I’m ready to take advantage of that,” said Ms. Vargas.
While Ms. Vargas is currently wearing a patch to allow her left eye to rest, she is expected to recover use of the eye in a few months. Ms. Vargas is eager to return to Colombia, reuniting with friends and family and resuming her duties as a lawyer for the Colombian government, as well as other entrepreneurial ventures.