By Shannon Magee
On May 23, 2013, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The next week, my husband and I came to MD Anderson for my first appointment.
My friend, a doctor, had recommended I seek treatment at MD Anderson if I needed a Whipple procedure, a difficult surgery used to treat pancreatic cancer. I didn't yet know if I needed a Whipple procedure. But I didn't want to waste any time or look back with any regrets.
Plotting my attack against my pancreatic cancer
During my first appointment at MD Anderson, my amazing surgeon, Matthew Katz, M.D., told me that I would be dead in a year if I did nothing.
I wanted to live, so I asked my doctors to throw everything they had at me. Pancreatic cancer has a very high recurrence rate, and I didn't want the cancer to spread or come back.
My care team decided my best option was a new pancreatic cancer clinical trial. I was the first person to enroll.
My pancreatic cancer treatment: Chemo, radiation and the Whipple procedure.
The trial started with eight weeks of FOLFIRINOX, a chemotherapy regimen for advanced pancreatic cancer. Then, I underwent six more weeks of chemo with radiation.
After that, it was time for the Whipple procedure. During the surgery, they removed part of my pancreas, half my stomach, my small intestine, 28 lymph nodes and my portal vein. I went to the hospital for the Whipple procedure at 5 a.m. The surgery was finished about 11 hours later. By 2:00 a.m. the next morning, I was resting comfortably in the Intermediate Care ward.
By Shannon Magee
By Cara Sorrell
When I first went away to college after completing sarcoma treatment, I thought I'd be leaving cancer behind me, except for the occasional checkup.
Unfortunately, I was quite mistaken. The end of my sarcoma treatment brought lymphedema, a type of swelling usually occurs in the arm or leg as a result of lymph node damage caused by cancer treatment.
Noticing my lymphedema symptoms
One day, I was walking back to my dorm with a group of friends. I started lagging far behind and couldn't speed up. Something was wrong. I didn't know it then, but this was the first sign of lymphedema.
In the following weeks, I began experiencing pain in my right calf. I had trouble walking short distances. My entire leg felt so heavy, so exhausted. I had no idea what was going on, and I began to worry that my sarcoma was back.
I called MD Anderson's Center for Reconstructive Surgery and asked about the pain in my calf. I was told to go get checked for a blood clot. The tests ruled that out, but there was some minor swelling in my right leg. I knew something was wrong. Soon after that, I was diagnosed with lymphedema.
How I managed my lymphedema
At the next checkup at MD Anderson, my doctor prescribed lymphedema physical therapy and told me to wear a compression garment on my leg. I had only seen older people wearing compression garments and never imagined this was something I'd do in my 20s.
My physical therapist taught me how to massage my leg, wake up my lymphatic system and properly wrap my whole leg with compression garments.
By Lindsey Garner
Nova Sprague always has had a passion for animals, especially dogs. And she never thought she'd work with them instead of people. But MD Anderson drew her in, she says.
After completing her Bachelor of Animal Science from Texas State University, Sprague put her passion for animals to work at an emergency animal clinic in Austin, Texas.
There, as a veterinary technician, she assisted with cases that needed ultrasounds.
She decided to learn to perform the procedure herself and moved home to Houston to enroll in ultrasound school and work at a local veterinary clinic. While doing clinical rotations at MD Anderson, she entertained the idea of working outside veterinary medicine.
"I knew that if I was ever going to do something different, MD Anderson was the only place for me," she says. "There's something special about this place."
Now she works here as a cardiac ultrasound technologist.
Working with people and animals
Sprague enjoys the differences between working with people and with animals.
"Animals don't know what's happening and can't tell you what's wrong," she says. "Our patients share so much with me - from their life stories and struggles to simply how their days are going."
By Gillian Kruse
A globe-trotting chemist turned-lawyer-turned businessman, Ferran Prat, Ph.D., J.D., sees himself as an agent for some of cancer medicine's biggest stars. As vice president for Strategic Industry Ventures, he helps connect our researchers with pharmaceutical companies, resources and tools to help in their efforts to end cancer.
We recently spoke with Prat to learn more about him. Here's what he had to say.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in a small village on the border of Spain and France called Sant Joan de les Abadesses. It's north of Barcelona and has about 4,000 people. The village is surrounded mostly by factories and sheep.
How many languages do you speak?
I can speak Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese and English.
How did you end up in the United States?
I've always been fascinated by the U.S. and the American way of life. My father taught me that there was a lot to be learned from this country, which led me to pursue a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles.
By Amanda White
For the past ten years, I've been working as a photographer specializing in weddings, senior portraits, family portraits, editorial and commercial photography. I've also been battling thyroid cancer for the past five years.
I was -- and still am -- passionate about bringing important, yet often overlooked, subjects to light, all while dealing with my own story. That's what's led me to my latest photography project focusing on moms with cancer.
Facing thyroid cancer as a mom
I received my thyroid cancer diagnosis two months after the birth of my first son, Jack. I had to undergo two massive rounds of radioactive iodine. Each time I was isolated from my husband and young son for two weeks. I missed his first Easter and was forced to stop breastfeeding much sooner than I had intended.
By Jacqueline Mason
Infections can be dangerous to a cancer patient coming out of surgery or undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. So can the spread of infections from the community. Think tuberculosis, shingles and the flu.
Our highly specialized Infection Control team is committed to making sure these kinds of germs don't reach our patients.
"A mild infection can turn serious for one of our patients if it's not treated quickly and appropriately," says Roy Chemaly, M.D., medical director of Infection Control and chair of our Infection Control Committee. "That's why we screen when other hospitals may not screen for multi-resistant organisms."
Linda Graviss, manager for Infection Control, adds an important point: An infection may require a patient to pause treatment until the illness is under control and result in an extended hospital stay or a readmission. This is why prevention is key, says Chemaly.
"Instead of only focusing on high-risk areas or high-risk patients, our surveillance program covers all aspects of patient care - inpatients and outpatients," he says.
Our superheroes who fight the superbugs
Graviss is the longest-serving member of the Infection Control team at 17 years. She manages six infection preventionists who perform routine inspections of patient care areas. They also educate our care teams and patients on health threats.
By Wendy Griffith, social work counselor
Many Americans are beginning to talk about their medical care wishes. This process of making decisions about your future health care is called advance care planning.
Some people avoid advance care planning because they think it's just for the sick or elderly. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Advance care planning is for everyone!
Many people also avoid discussing advance care planning with their loved ones because they're afraid of upsetting them. But most patients and loved ones actually report feeling a sense of relief after they've completed advance care planning.
Today, in honor of National Healthcare Decisions Day, we're encouraging our cancer patients, survivors, and their families to start the advance care planning process. To help you begin, here are answers to some common questions about advance care planning.
What is advance care planning?
Advance care planning is the process of communicating information about a patient's diagnosis, treatment options, life goals, values and wishes. It involves the patient, loved ones, and health care providers. Advance care planning is also more than a one-time event. It will probably involve ongoing conversations. Having these conversations ensures that the patient's preferences are known by the health care team and incorporated into current and future health care plans.
By Brittany Cordeiro
Recent news headlines suggest women with dense breast tissue need specialty care and exams to detect breast cancer.
But Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center, says the news is ahead of the science.
"We understand that dense breast tissue is associated with an increased risk for breast cancer, but we don't fully understand that risk," Bevers says. "We need more research on how to manage women with dense breast tissue before we can say whether extra screening exams make a difference."
Below, Bevers answers some common questions about dense breasts and screenings.
What does it mean to have dense breasts?
Breast density describes the proportion of the different tissues that make up a woman's breast. Women with dense breasts have more glandular tissue (breast and connective tissue) than fat.
Also, breast density can only be determined by a mammogram. It's not a measure of feel, such as size or firmness.
By Ryan Stephens
As if the cancer journey isn't tough enough, imagine being a single parent to a 15-year-old daughter.
That was the case for Constance Charles when her doctor confirmed the cluster of lumps she'd felt around her right breast was breast cancer - stage 2 noninvasive intraductal carcinoma. She had no history of cancer in her family, so the diagnosis was a complete surprise.
Constance was afraid to tell her daughter, Briahna, because she didn't want to think about her having to face the world alone. It had always just the two of them together in Texas. Their closest family members lived in Kansas.
When she finally worked up the courage and broke the news, Briahna asked, "Are you going to die, Mom?"
More than 12 years later, Constance is proud to call herself a cancer survivor and an MD Anderson employee. Constance always tells single parents - or anyone facing cancer - that faith, family and friends are what helped her and Briahna get to this point.
Advice for single parents facing cancer
Here's Constance's advice for single parents facing cancer:
By Amanda Swennes
Working as a patient services representative at MD Anderson is a little like doing a puzzle. But there's a catch: new pieces keep appearing, some disappear, and sometimes you get handed several identical pieces.
That's what our 15 full-time and three part-time patient services representatives face each day. Their puzzle is MD Anderson's 667 inpatient beds. The pieces are patients who need to be admitted.
Behind the scenes at MD Anderson
At MD Anderson, there's a lot of collaborating and puzzle-piecing that goes on behind the scenes. It often happens before a patient ever gets here.
First, a bed has to be available. And not just any bed. If a patient requires rehab or needs specialized care and accommodations for, say, a stem cell transplant, then that patient must be assigned to a bed on a floor with specialized clinical staff and equipment.
Patient services representatives have to keep constant tabs on all the patients in the hospital and know which beds are available where. They also need to know what type of diagnosis or treatment a patient has been given so they can assign the right bed.
Drew, a father of three girls under 6 years old, hadn't been diagnosed with yet, but he'd been experiencing some and was seeking a second opinion before undergoing surgery. Messick quickly stopped any fears or reservations Drew had. He turned to him and said, "I'm going to treat you like you're my brother."
It's a moment Drew will never forget.
"I have two older brothers and an older sister. From the moment he said that, I knew that I wasn't just a patient to him," he says. "I totally trust him starting with everything he said after that and still do to this day."
Recognizing rectal cancer symptoms
Since his senior year of college, Drew had struggled with Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. A former college athlete and the coach of the Air Force Academy men's basketball team, Drew had always managed the disease through diet and exercise. But in September 2013, he started experiencing stomach pain and digestion issues that wouldn't go away. He underwent a series of tests, but each one came back negative. His doctor sent him to the emergency room.
Stacy Sugg had just taken some time away from her job as a teacher to spend more time with her children and her husband. But just a few months later -- on her 16th wedding anniversary -- she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"It was not exactly the gift I was expecting," Stacy says.
To calm her fears, Stacy scheduled an appointment at MD Anderson in the Nellie B. Connally Breast Center's Multi Team Clinic in Houston, not far from her Conroe home.
Coming to MD Anderson for breast cancer treatment and a mastectomy
During her first appointment, Stacy and her husband met with all her doctors, including her surgeon, her oncologist and her radiation oncologist. They made a plan for her breast cancer treatment.
"As someone who's just been diagnosed with cancer, all you want is to know what you need to do next," she says. "We left with smiles on our faces. We had a plan, and we knew that our doctors were all on the same page. It was a very comforting feeling."
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- Facing pancreatic cancer and the Whipple procedure head on
- Coping with lymphedema after sarcoma treatment
- Get to know Nova Sprague, cardiac ultrasound technologist
- First person: Getting to know Ferran Prat
- How I'm coping with thyroid cancer as a photographer and a mom
- How we work to prevent infections
- 4 questions about advance care planning, answered
- Do women with dense breasts need extra cancer screenings?
- A survivor's advice for single parents facing cancer
- How patient services representatives help our patients
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