“The first day I was really scared,” said Mary Askin, 51, of Bellmore, recalling her state of mind driving to ProCure Proton Therapy Center in New Jersey for her first cancer treatment session. The procedure involved wearing a formed-fitting mask that would direct beams of energy at her cancerous areas. After completing a total of thirty-three 20-minute sessions, she looked back on her first and said, “the machinery was kind of big and scary looking, but everybody there was so nice.”
Six months before, Askin have a lump removed from behind her ear at Mary Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. After the surgery, her doctors diagnosed her with cancer of the salivary gland. They gave her three choices: refuse treatment and risk they lump coming back, have X-ray radiation done at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Center, or undergo a treatment she had never heard of called proton therapy.
Traditional X-ray treatment would cause her to lose all salivary function on the right side of her face, Askin’s doctors told her. “Because I worked in dental offices my whole life I know what it’s like to live without enough saliva,” she said and explained how it contributes to our ability to taste, cleans teeth and maintains their strength.
Askin had decided to take the risk and undergo the treatment. She grew accustomed to her experiences at ProCure and said that she owes a lot of her positive attitude to the technicians who set her treatment up every morning. They would always put on music and one of the employees even tried teaching her how to salsa dance.
St. Patrick’s Day was always an important holiday to Askin [she got engaged at New York City’s parade in 2005], but when she tried to go out last year to celebrate, she couldn’t make it past one beer without feeling exhausted. The treatment had fatigued her, in addition to leaving a slight rash on the side of her face the proton rays were administered. She soon recovered, however, and last June started working at Flying Belgian Brewery in Bayshore. “And that’s so much more fun than dentistry,” she said with a laugh.
While proton therapy saved most of her salivary cells there was still minor damage done that made it hard to eat certain dry foods, such as walnuts or almonds. “I still eat them though,” she said, “because I still love them.”
Askin, now cancer-free, wanted to thank her best friend of 20 years, Michelle D’ericco, of Garden City, and mother-in-law, Bernedette Askin, whose memory kept her optimistic throughout her treatment. Both women died after long battles with cancer. D’ericco was diagnosed 14 years ago and went between periods of remission until the strongest bout four years ago when she had a heart attack during the chemotherapy. Askin lost D’ericco four years ago in December, around the same time she was faced with a decision about her prognosis. When asked if her friend was on her mind at the time, Askin did not hesitate and said, “she’s pretty much always on my mind.”