Tina Christian-Lenson has always understood the value of a healthy lifestyle and regular cancer screenings; after all, she works in health care. But when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, she became the patient — and gained a new perspective on how important it is for patients to advocate for their care.
Tina is a nurse practitioner and the proud mother of two children, Emma and Aiden. She and her husband, Peter, both lead healthy lives by staying active and following a vegan diet. Besides spending time with their children, they love going on vacations to take a break from their busy careers.
In early 2018, Tina went in for a routine breast exam, when her physician found a concerning lump in her breast. A subsequent biopsy determined that she had triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). TNBC is an aggressive form of breast cancer that grows quickly and is more likely to come back after treatment than other types of breast cancer. It is also disproportionately more common, and tends to have a higher mortality rate, among Black women.
Because of TNBC’s disproportionate impact on Black women like Tina — and due to a long family history of breast cancer impacting her mother, aunt and two sisters — Tina was vigilant about scheduling annual breast exams. She was thankful that her annual exams had helped to catch the cancer before it could progress to an advanced stage. However, she was also concerned about how the diagnosis would impact her family.
“At the time of my diagnosis, my daughter was five years old and my son was just two. I made it my mission to get treatment immediately and to ensure that I preserved as much of my health as possible, so I could stay active in their lives,” says Tina.
Upon the recommendation of her provider, Tina underwent a combination of chemotherapy and surgery to treat the cancer. Afterwards, she began exploring her radiation treatment options in early 2019.
Because of the tumor’s location near her heart and the potential long-term side effects of chemotherapy treatment, Tina wanted to find a radiation treatment option that would minimize further damage to the surrounding healthy tissue. Learning that proton therapy was a safe and effective treatment option for her diagnosis, she consulted with Dr. L. Christine Fang, at the SCCA Proton Therapy Center, and ultimately decided on proton therapy treatment.
“I met with Tina and she was clearly a very savvy and well-informed patient," says Dr. Fang. “I agreed with her providers and strongly recommended radiation treatment. Because we are so fortunate to be part of a system that can offer proton therapy, this was part of our discussion, and after our conversation we decided to proceed with proton therapy given her young age and importance of sparing as much surrounding normal organs as possible.”
For other patients battling breast cancer treatment, Tina says, “It’s important to be proactive with your care. Ask questions throughout treatment, so that you understand your options and the process and ultimately feel more informed as you make decisions.”
Despite the seriousness of undergoing treatment, Tina describes her time at the SCCA Proton Therapy Center as a “mini-vacation.” She says the staff were attentive, it was very quiet — compared to her home with two young children running around — and she was able to take some time for herself each day with a cup of tea in the waiting room.
Throughout her cancer treatment, Tina took a holistic approach to her health, including following a healthy diet and exercising regularly. She was inspired by the research and other patient stories about how these steps can lead to better long-term outcomes.
Today, Tina is doing well. She continues to spend as much time as possible with her children, reading and planning their next family trip. Best of all, Tina says that her experience taught her not to wait for permission to achieve her dreams and goals, inspiring her and her husband to move to their home in the San Juan Islands.
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