Putting the ‘Pro’ in Proton Therapy


Dr. Paivi Samant shares her story of beating breast cancer and how incorporating this cutting edge treatment into her plan paid off.

Cancer is a bully. It picks on people young and old, rich and poor, big and small, healthy and sick. It’s a bully that lives in every neighborhood in America. It arrives unannounced and puts you to the ultimate test. When Dr. Paivi Samant was diagnosed with bi-lateral breast cancer in 2014, she was ready to stand up to the fight.

“People who know me know I haven’t been sick a day in my life. It takes a little bit to digest, but I wasn’t saying ‘Oh my God, I have cancer,’” Paivi said. “At that point you have to make decisions at a fairly fast pace – you have to get going.”

It’s no surprise that Paivi, a former speech pathologist turned Prosthodontist, and her husband Sanjiv, who is a medical physicist in radiation oncology, would take the pragmatic approach. Both are incredibly smart, proactive people who’ve based their professional lives in pursuit of scientific information – pursuit that for Paivi started across the Atlantic Ocean in Finland, where she was born.

Through a Rotary Foundation grant, Paivi was able to get an all-expenses paid college degree anywhere in the world. She chose to go to Canada, which is where she met Sanjiv, who was doing his doctoral studies in physics. A couple of years later, he, Paivi and their two children, a newly born and one year old, moved to Memphis, TN. Sanjiv began research at the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and Paivi decided to change careers and go to dental school. After teaching at the University of Tennessee for three years, once again her husband’s research would take the family further South, to Gainesville.

Now their kids are grown and pursuing their own careers in medicine and finance. Telling the family about her diagnosis? Surprisingly easy, she said.

“My children, they were quite rational about it. The way we are as a family, it was sort of an open discussion. They wanted to know what the status was, what had been planned– they were analytical about it,” she said.

She flew to Finland to tell her parents in person. She didn’t want to break such important news over the phone. It’s one of the few parts of the experience you can control, she said, which is vital.

“Everybody has to do it in their own way. On the surface, people hear cancer and they think of death to some extent. We tend to tie those words together, but it doesn’t have to be like that,” she said. “I could be driving and have a car wreck. Our time is really not in our hands.”

In the case of her diagnosis, time wasn’t really on her side, either. Cancer treatment can be extremely complex and multi-faceted, requiring a patient to quickly undertake a personalized risk benefit analysis and making informed choices, even in more established diseases such as breast cancer. After considering several national cancer centers, Paivi decided to seek treatment at the UF Health system. For her, it was important that the health facility be able to provide multiple specialties using an integrative approach under one roof, while still retaining the experience of “personalized care.” Paivi alone has been under the care of six specialists, from traditional radiology, surgery, radiation oncology and medical oncology experts to lymphedema and proton therapy specialists throughout the UF Health system. She and Sanjiv began immense amounts of research, looking into what combination of treatments would be best, not only in the short term, but in the long term as well based on her specific situation.

Dr. Julie Bradley, a radiation oncologist specializing in breast cancer with experience in both photon and proton therapies, is one of the doctors who participated in lengthy and detailed conversations with the Samants regarding proton therapy. Proton therapy, which is a type of radiation therapy that uses a beam of protons to help eliminate diseased tissue, would allow for her lungs and heart to have less exposure to the radiation, which is a long-term benefit.

“She [Samant] is one of the smartest people I know,” Dr. Bradley said. She did a lot of her own research on the therapies and different options and supplements, and even things like exercise and other methods to help to try and minimize some of the side effects of treatment. I had very interesting conversations with her and there are still things we don’t know that she brought to our discussions.”

From an academic level, Paivi wanted to make sure every single aspect of her treatment, from surgery and chemotherapy, to radiation and proton therapy, was something that she signed off on. Luckily, her doctors at UF Health in Gainesville and the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville were more than willing to embrace her desire for personalized care. It was a cornerstone of Paivi’s approach. The more she could control about the situation, the less she felt like a victim of cancer. At the end of the day, she was interested in solutions, not sorrow.

The road to any cancer recovery is hard, and in some cases unimaginable for healthy people. To add to that, throughout her treatment, Paivi refused to quit seeing patients of her own, creating a new definition of hyper-determined.

“She is driven by her work. You can’t take that from her,” Sanjiv said.

Pages: 1 2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.