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A Team Effort Helps Breast Cancer Patient Celebrate a Night at the Opera

Posted on Oct 29, 2015 in Cancer

Caroline Hurtado, radiation therapist; Annie Noonan; Al Taira, M.D., radiation oncologist

Caroline Hurtado, radiation therapist; Annie Noonan; Al Taira, M.D., radiation oncologist

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are sharing one patient’s story of celebration during her fight against breast cancer.

Long before her breast cancer diagnosis, Annie Noonan and her husband had been invited to attend the opening night of the San Francisco Opera. She had never been to opening night and had been looking forward to it before the diagnosis.

Annie’s treatment at Mills-Peninsula’s Dorothy E. Schneider Cancer Center in San Mateo included a type of targeted radiation therapy called intracavitary brachytherapy, in which a device to deliver a high dose of radiation is inserted into the breast and left in place for the duration of the treatment. The device is attached to one end of a tube, and the other end of the tube sticks out of the skin with several protruding wires.

Annie chose this type of radiation for its short duration — twice a day for five days — so she could quickly return to her family and her busy professional life as president and co-founder of The Avalon Academy, a local school for children with cerebral palsy.

“It was very uncomfortable to have this device inside my chest and I was wearing two or three inches of padding over the spot where the catheter sticks out,” she says.

When the date of the opera opening last month happened to fall in the middle of her radiation treatments, Annie wasn’t sure she would feel well enough to attend. 
And covered with bulky padding and bandages, she wasn’t confident she could dress up for the event without drawing attention.

Celebrating Life During the Fight

Annie happened to mention her quashed opera plans to her nurse, Elizabeth Foley. Within minutes, her entire care team in radiology swung into action. “They said, ‘You have to go! Just bring your dress in and we’ll sort you out.’”

The team went to work, reapplying a thinner layer of padding on top of the catheter entry site and covering it all with a tube top instead of a surgical bra, which concealed the protruding wires and the padding. After a few adjustments, Annie fit into her sleeveless ball gown with barely a hint of the battle going on underneath.

On opening night, carefully dressed in her gown, Annie walked out into the Mills-Peninsula Cancer Center lobby where her care team was gathered. Everyone broke into applause and a few people burst into tears. “I felt like Cinderella going to the ball!” Annie says. “It was a great distraction and a marvelous memory. That I was able to go despite being in the middle of radiation treatment for cancer is amazing and it is because of my nurses and the radiology team. They were so incredibly kind and took the time to make this happen.”

Annie is now doing well in her recovery. “I’m so grateful to the incredible cancer team at Mills-Peninsula who treated me with the utmost dignity, respect and affection, and made a tough situation so much more bearable,” she says.