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Suicide attempt leads to mother's brain cancer diagnosis

Posted at 3:31 PM, May 09, 2018

A Jessup, Wisconsin mother said she feels almost back to normal after beating cancer with proton therapy. But she didn't learn about the diagnosis, until it was almost too late. 

"I feel horrible. I just don't even want to exist right now," Mary Alston said. 

That's what she told her doctor after her depression started to worsen. Her doctor changed her medication and even increased the dosage, but nothing helped. She decide to take her own life on Christmas eve. 

"I was just like nobody should have to put up with this then and that's when I decide I was going to take some pills," Alston said. 

She took a bunch of sleeping pills and drove to a Park & Ride. 

"Just sit down in my car, lean the seat back, listen to the music and just go to sleep," Alston said. 

That was her plan, but that's not what happened. 

"I heard a tap, tap, tap on the window and it was a police officer," Alston said. 

Her daughter knew something was up and had called police to find her. Alston said she tried to leave but the officer took her to the hospital. 

"The next thing I remember is waking up at the Washington MedStar," Alston said. 

She woke up the day after Christmas and found out she had brain cancer because a doctor did a CT scan. 

"All the people that I’ve talked to have told me that there was no protocol to run a CT or MRI on my head and for whatever reason, Dr. Shack at Howard County literally saved my life by doing what she did," Alston said. 

At the time, doctors told her it was stage one. She was in surgery the next day to remove the tumor. With its location, she said it all made sense: her depression and mood swings. A few weeks after the surgery, she found out her tumor had been upgraded to state two, meaning radiation. She knew right away that she wanted proton therapy, a very precise form of radiation. 

"When you deliver a proton beam, you can pick where the tumor is and it will deliver all of that dose and there will be no spread of the dose beyond the tumor," executive director of the Maryland Proton Treatment Center, Dr. Bill Regine, said. "Having a tool like protons, where you can put the dose in and not spread it to other parts of the brain, is extremely powerful."

Regine says the center in Baltimore is the only one of its kind in the region. Open for just two years, he says it's the largest and fastest-growing center in the country. 

"The most exciting thing is that we can impact the lives of cancer patients in a way we couldn't before," Regine said. 

They have helped almost 1,000 patients Regine says research shows proton therapy increases the cure rate and decreases side effects. It can also be very helpful for pediatric patients. Some other centers have a challenge getting their therapy covered by insurance, but Regine says 85 percent of their patients have had success getting approval because their cost for the therapy is similar or the same as other radiation treatments. There are more than 100 clinical trials happening across the country right now, and he hopes that will provide enough positive research to get 100% insurance coverage. 

Alston's treatment lasted 6 weeks, and as of April 16, she was cancer-free. She feels almost back to normal and is very grateful. 

"I'm grateful that my daughter called police. I'm grateful that that doctor ran that scan and I'm grateful to be here today," Alston said. 

Given the second change, she has a new view of life. 

"A new spiritual awakening. I feel like God knocked loud and hard on my door and I’m obviously here for a purpose. I’m hoping that my story will help someone else that is going through anything similar," Alston said.

She's also used her journey to help others. After realizing that hats to cover hair loss patches are so expensive, she wants to pay it forward.

"I know how to sew and I’m gonna make hats and caps and wraps and start donating them to people that need them," Alston said. 

The center, affiliated with the University of Maryland, offers a comprehensive approach with integrative wellness, treating the patient, not just the disease. 

"It’s one thing to take care of the cancer, but you can’t forget the rest of the patient and what they are going through," Regine said. 

The program started at the end of January and  offers yoga therapy, expressive art, acupuncture and meditation, something Alston found very useful. 

"It’s a whole health approach so you look at the entire person: mind, body, spirit, all of those different components that fall under those umbrellas. We want to support the whole person," naturopathic doctor, Griffin McMath said.