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Mother turns pain into purpose at Cone Health

A Cone Health physicist uses her expertise to help tackle tumor cells in cancer patients, following facing her own trauma.

BURLINGTON, N.C. — Her high school Physics teacher spoke words that changed her life. 

"She said major in physics because if you get a degree in physics then you could go on to do just about anything," Caroline Vanderstraeten, a clinical medical physicist at Cone Health Regional Medical's Cancer Center in Burlington, said.

Vanderstraeten said her teacher was right. Now, she uses her blend of math and science knowledge daily.  

"Most of my day is actually with calibrating the linear accelerator and working with our breaking implant therapy program where we actually implant radioactive implants either permanently or temporarily for our cancer patients," Vanderstraeten said.

Vanderstraeten showed Meteorologist Monique Robinson where this system is in the hospital and how works. 

"The linear accelerators is where we essentially accelerate the electrons to the speed of light," Vanderstraeten said. "Then, we hit them on a target and they turn into photons and we direct those targets into the tumor cells for the patients."

Vanderstraeten said the goal is to treat the patient within 24 hours, after being diagnosed, if the patient wants. Tackling the cancer faster is the goal, but she said some days the job can get tough. No matter how tough it gets, she knows her skills are necessary at Cone Health.

"My son passed away when he was two days old, on my birthday, and it was a very challenging year," Vanderstraeten said. "It was 2014. I was working at Cone Health at the time and I remember thinking, 'What do I want to do from here? What do I want to do with my own life?' I settled on: There's no other choice but to help people."

A life-changing experience that keeps Vanderstraeten pushing each day. Now, she says she smiles when she hears her 4-year-old daughter she wants to be a physicist like her mom one day. She also encourages other young girls to join the field.

"There aren't a lot of people that look like us in the careers we've chosen in science and math, so it's easy to feel like we don't belong in this career," Vanderstraeten said. "If anyone is thinking about a career like this and don't see an example of themselves in the career, just believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you too.'"