After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti — which killed as many as 316,000 people — Farah Aubin, a 12-year-old Haitian girl, fled to the United States along with her mother and brother. Eventually, the family found refuge in Concord, Mass., and set up a new life there. In the 12 years since her arrival in the United States, Farah finished high school and attended college, where she studied geography and environmental science. She became a special education teacher, starting her first job in Northborough, Mass. Farah was full of life, she was happy, she was living her dream.
Then, a different kind of “earthquake” struck — a diagnosis of a rare cancer called adenoid cystic carcinoma — turning Farah’s dream into a nightmare.
For years leading up to her diagnosis, Farah had suffered from terrible headaches. Consultations with several physicians were inconclusive. “The pain in my head was so bad that I thought my eyes would explode,” said Farah, explaining how she felt before finding her way to Suzanne Freitag, MD, director of the Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a member of Mass General Brigham. Dr. Freitag located Farah’s tumor and operated on it.
“My diagnosis might have been too late, but it turned out to be just in time,” said Farah. “Dr. Freitag was able to remove the tumor completely despite it being in an awkward location — close to my pre-frontal cortex, right in the front of my head. The removal gave us a good chance of success.”
Farah then moved on to courses of proton beam radiation — a specialized form of radiation delivering high doses and avoiding damage to healthy brain tissue — with Shannon MacDonald, MD, and chemotherapy with Lori Wirth, MD, both at Massachusetts General Hospital. “One of the great aspects of working at Mass General Brigham,” commented Dr. Freitag, “is having access to the combined expertise of specialists across multiple disciplines. You can’t underestimate how this team dynamic strengthens patient care.”
Caring For A Cure
Adenoid cystic carcinoma is considered an aggressive cancer, but not in the sense that it is fast-moving; instead, it is a slow and relentless disease that tends to recur. Treatment is long and was difficult for Farah.
Farah’s social worker, Rebecca Lawrence, MSW, LICSW, who offers personalized, around-the-clock emotional support, noticed that Farah was scheduled to receive chemotherapy infusions on her birthday. Rebecca contacted the Caring For A Cure team — a group of oncology nurses who raise funds to help cancer patients navigate their diagnoses — and a plan took shape to make sure that Farah’s birthday was properly celebrated. Rebecca arranged a visit to a comedy club in Boston, knowing laughing is something Farah does easily, and a pizza party the following day with family, friends and her care team. The festivities helped Farah feel normal again and were a much-needed salve.
Positivity and Patience
As of now, Farah is defying the odds with her infectious energy, her mother’s love and the scientific know-how of a team of caregivers at Mass General.
“I had an MRI scan recently; I’m waiting for the results of that. Generally, that’s what I’m doing right now: waiting. Waiting to see if the chemo and radiation have worked,” says Farah. “My mom is with me all the time. It’s hard for her to talk about what’s happening, but she’s always there for me, doing what needs to be done.”
Farah says that while her care at Mass General Brigham saved her life, the philanthropy-supported Caring For A Cure program “lifted my spirits and helped me face this with courage.” “This type of support,” said Dr. MacDonald, “makes an immediate and tangible difference in the quality of life for patients that face weeks of daily hospital visits and hospitalizations.”
“I know it’s odd to say, but I like going to the hospital,” says Farah. “It is great to hear them say, ‘I don’t see anything wrong right now, no changes, all is good.’ When your whole world is shaking and you feel you have no control, it’s great to be in the hands of people who both know stuff and care.”
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