Patient with oral cancer finds hope in proton therapy


This is Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. Click here to learn more about these types of cancer.

Before her cancer diagnosis, Holly Caster worked in hospitality at Beaumont Hospital in her Michigan hometown, coming up with creative ways to make patients’ stays more comfortable.

There was the flash mob she planned for a high school senior who’d been hospitalized and couldn’t go to prom. The laptop, CDs and company-keeping for a young pregnant woman confined to bed rest whose family lived 50 miles away. She gave cancer patients afghans in their favorite color. She planned in-hospital celebrations for weddings and anniversaries and new babies, all to help people cope as best they could when life dished up the unexpected.

Then the unexpected happened to her.

First, an auto accident left painful after-effects that required her to quit the job she loved. And then, at 34-years-old, Caster was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, an uncommon form of oral cancer. The resulting surgery removed 70 percent of her left parotid or salivary gland and stripped the facial nerve to which a 2.4-centimeter tumor had been attached.

Suddenly, the tables were turned, and she found herself on the receiving end of a health care system she once worked for.

“I’m trying to remember that happiness gets you through it,” said Caster during an interview at the beginning of her treatment, a combination of chemotherapy and proton therapy.

Proton therapy offered the most promise, because of the vulnerable, critical tissues and structures surrounding the tumor, include the spinal cord and jawbone. These parts of the body are prone to inadvertently receiving secondhand radiation when conventional radiation treatment methods are used.

She arrived at Provision with her two daughters, sister Kimberly and mother—the family settling into a rental house nearby to face eight daunting weeks of treatment together. Her partner, Richard, stayed home in Michigan to work and take care of the pets as well as the girls during the last part of Holly’s Knoxville stay.

“It was hard,” says Caster.

There were nights she slept in the bathroom, when her sister would wake her up every two hours to make sure she got something in a stomach rebelling from chemo, when she didn’t think she could take one more treatment.

But she did. Thanks to her family, a cadre of friends to whom she turned to throughout for support (one of whom set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses) and the staff at Provision who Caster said lived up to even her hospitality standards.

“Everyone is so wonderful at Provision,” Caster says. “It just doesn’t feel like a cancer treatment center.”

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