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At age 28, Suzanne Salit was exactly where she wanted to be. She’d earned her master’s degree in social work, landed an appealing job at a psychiatric hospital, and planned to start a family with her husband, Clayton. When irregular bleeding prompted a visit to her gynecologist for tests, "I didn’t think anything of it," Salit says. Her gynecologist called unexpectedly the next day: Salit had cervical cancer.
"The world just stopped," Salit recalls.
A PET scan revealed Salit had invasive cervical cancer that extended to her uterus and abdominal lymph nodes. While early stage cervical cancer is not uncommon among women in their 20s, invasive cancer is very rare in this age group.
Salit sought guidance from Akila N. Viswanathan, MD, MPH, director of gynecologic radiation at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber, who told her the cancer was treatable if they acted right away. Dr. Viswanathan also assured her that, in addition to her medical oncologist, she would have a full circle of care, including nurses, social workers, and access to fertility specialists and support groups.
"Her approach was very reassuring," recalls Salit. "She had a holistic view and was very methodical."
With only a few days to make important fertility decisions, Salit and her husband elected to create frozen embryos. Immediately afterward, she started radiation and chemotherapy treatments for her cancer.
Salit was able to receive cutting-edge Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), which delivers radiation to tumor areas with greater precision, reducing damage to healthy tissue. Using computer-generated images that show tumor size and shape, IMRT aims thin beams of radiation with different intensities, from multiple angles.
"We have the availability to provide very targeted, very focused treatment," says Dr. Viswanathan.
Salit received almost-daily external radiation for five weeks. In addition, she underwent two weeks of internal radiation in the form of high-dose brachytherapy – a treatment that involves inserting high energy, image-guided radiation at the cancer site, usually for only a few minutes at a time. Her cancer treatments, including weekly chemotherapy, continued for two months. She was able to receive all her care as an outpatient, which allowed her to continue working with minimal disruption.
A year later, the couple turned their attention to starting a family. Knowing she could not carry a baby, Salit found a surrogate, and Lucas Salit was born in early January 2013. "I felt whole again," she says. "Everything came full circle."
Salit is committed to helping other young women who are diagnosed with cancer, especially gynecologic cancers. "It’s not only you going through this, it’s your family and everyone around you," she says. "It’s important that women understand they’re not alone."
Turning Point 2014 Table of Contents