When Emma-Jane Hinton was diagnosed with a brain tumor this past summer, she dreamed about the day she could go back to school, take a swim and return to her Junior Bengals cheerleading team. Last week, the teen’s dream came true as she rang the bell at Baptist Health’s Miami Cancer Institute, signifying the end of her treatment, the return to life ― and a cure.
It was a significant day for another reason as well. Emma-Jean is the Institute’s 1000th proton therapy patient, making it the most experienced proton center in the region. With the addition of the proton therapy program in 2017, the Institute also became the only cancer center in the world with every type of radiation therapy available under one roof.
“One of the major benefits of proton therapy is the ability to stop the radiation dose exactly where the tumor is,” says Minesh Mehta, M.D., deputy director and chief of radiation oncology at the Institute. “What this means is that for tissues beyond the tumor, there is no excess radiation delivered to the patient or those organs. This allows us to deliver the highest possible dose to the tumor and spare normal tissue as best we can.”
Some 15 percent of the Institute’s 1000 proton patients are children, while 85 percent are adults. The most common diseases the Institute has treated with proton therapy include prostate and breast cancer, tumors of the central nervous system, head and neck tumors, gastrointestinal tumors, sarcomas, lymphomas and gynecological malignancies.
The beauty of proton therapy is that with its advanced form of pencil beam scanning, Miami Cancer Institute experts can precisely target tumors and reduce radiation to nearby organs. X-rays used in traditional radiation therapy pass through tissue and organs on the way in and out of the body.
Depending on the location of the cancer, traditional radiation therapy can still be the best solution. But for many children like 13-year-old Emma-Jean, whose germinoma tumor was located in the brain, protecting surrounding tissue is crucial, says Matthew Hall, M.D., the Institute’s lead pediatric radiation oncologist and a specialist in proton therapy. (Watch the video to see Emma-Jean’s full story.)
“In years past, patients treated with radiation therapy to the brain were at significant risk of having memory and other cognitive problems, as well as many other toxicities from our treatment,” Dr. Hall says. “With modern proton therapy, patients like Emma have an excellent chance of not only being cured of their brain tumor, but also being able to finish school, go on to college, have a successful job and live independently.”
An active and healthy child, Emma-Jean began complaining of neck and back pain. It finally sent her to the E.R. An MRI showed the tumor and the Pembroke Pines teen had surgery and chemotherapy at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. Doctors there referred her to Miami Cancer Institute, where she had 24 proton therapy treatments. Emma-Jean is now cancer-free.
“Today is Emma’s last treatment. And I am elated, beyond blessed and super excited for her to get back to normal. And just happy this day is here,” says her mother, Esther Martinez. “As parents, you always want the best for your children and you never expect that you would go through situations like these. But in the end, there’s hope.”
Emma-Jean is the first to admit that treatment hasn’t always been easy. Anxiety attacks during her first proton sessions, where she had to remain still with her head in a confining mask to ensure accuracy, left her wondering if she would be able to complete treatment. But the radiation therapists talked her through the process to make her comfortable and her child life specialist gave her fidgets ― small rubbery balls with a marble inside ― to keep her hands and mind focused.
“The staff at Miami Cancer Institute, my child life specialist, my doctor’s assistant, they all helped me have a stress-free treatment,” Emma-Jean says. Her message to other kids starting cancer treatment? “Think about happy thoughts. Don’t think about the things you are currently going through. Think about the things you will be doing when you’re done.”
Emma-Jean’s maturity and positive attitude through difficult times have made her a role model for the Institute’s other young patients, Dr. Hall says. “She is going to be a wonderful young adult and it was a privilege to help her,” he adds.
Back to Living
A cancer-free Emma-Jean rejoined her classmates on Monday, March 8. It was her first time back in the classroom since COVID-19 shut down her school on March 16, 2020. While she is happy that her treatment is over and that she now only requires long-term follow-up surveillance, she says she will miss her Miami Cancer Institute family.
“When a patient is treated with proton therapy at center like ours, it’s not a one-man shop,” Dr. Mehta says. “It’s not a one-person enterprise. This is truly a team effort, lead by and reviewed by numerous professionals.” After hitting the 1,000-patient mark, Dr. Mehta says, “We can look back today and see how amazing this work has been.”
For more information on Miami Cancer Institute’s proton therapy program, click here.