Jennifer Davis on CamelbackBy Jennifer Davis

If my doctors at MD Anderson had told me that I would be standing on top of Camelback Mountain in Arizona just 10 months after my stem cell transplant, I would have called them crazy.

But on March 29, 2015, exactly 321 days after my transplant, I did exactly that, reaching the summit of Camelback with my husband and a childhood friend.

The full meaning of this didn't hit me until I saw the tears in my husband's eyes. During my multiple myeloma journey, I couldn't have even imagined something of this magnitude.

My multiple myeloma diagnosis
My battle with multiple myeloma began before I even realized it.

My back started to hurt in March 2013, but I didn't know why. I saw several doctors, each of whom prescribed muscle relaxers and painkillers.

Lynn-Randolph.jpgBy Lynn Randolph

Every Tuesday afternoon for the last seven years, I've visited MD Anderson to help cancer patients and families in the palliative care unit heal through art. I do this as an artist-in-residence with a non-profit organization called COLLAGE: The Art For Cancer Network.  

Both my husband and my brother were patients at MD Anderson. When I was asked to become an artist-in-residence at the hospital, I was reluctant. My husband's death was the most painful experience of my life. Then I thought maybe I could help others going through what I had.

Here is an account of one typical visit.

I knocked on the door of the hospital room and I heard a deep voice say, "Come in." The room was dark and full of sadness. A young man sat on the far side of the bed holding his mother's hand and weeping. His father -- her husband -- stood tall on the side near me. His red-rimmed eyes and stoic countenance were heart-breaking. I told them why I'd interrupted them. I waited to be dismissed, but they invited me in. I sat down and thought, "What can I do? They have formed a sacred circle of love around her, and now does not seem like a good time to interfere."

Intuitively, I blurted out, "Is there anything I can draw for you?"

"Can you draw some mourning doves?" the husband asked.

I pulled a pencil out of my bag of supplies and one of the handmade paper sketchbooks I designed for just this purpose. I drew two mourning doves suspended in flight and handed the drawing to him. "Oh," he said, and clasped it to his body. He shared the drawing with his son, and they both thanked me.

I got up and left, returning them to their circle of love with an image of holy spirits.

girl-with-questions.jpgThe minutes, days and weeks after you're diagnosed with cancer can be overwhelming, scary and lonely.

But, as cancer patients and survivors recently shared in our Facebook community, you can get through this time.

Here's their advice for newly diagnosed cancer patients.

  • Don't dwell on statistics. This is your experience, and no two people, cancer diagnoses or experiences are exactly alike.
  • Knowledge is power. Research your disease and treatment options. Ask questions. Take notes when you meet with your doctor. This will help you feel more at peace with your decisions.
  • Be your own advocate. You know your body and your wishes for treatment better than anyone else, so speak up if something doesn't seem right.
  • Don't rush into treatment. Where you go first for treatment matters. The decisions you make now can affect your treatment options and prognosis down the road. So, take time to choose a cancer center, and evaluate your treatment options. Get a second opinion if you're not happy with the options you're given.

KarenFore - multiple myeloma.jpgBy Karen Fore

As a volunteer with CanCare and myCancerConnection, MD Anderson's one-on-one program that connects cancer patients and caregivers with others who have been there, I talk to a lot of other multiple myeloma patients. Most ask about the stem cell transplant process and my experience.

Here's what I tell them.

What to know about autologous stem cell transplants
A transplant infuses health cells -- also known as stem cells -- into a cancer patient's body to replace damaged cells.

Stem cells for transplants can come from three sources. I had an autologous stem cell transplant, which means cells from my own bone marrow were used. Some people undergo an allogeneic transplant, which means they receive stem cells from a donor. Some patients receive umbilical cord blood instead. Not all patients are eligible for a stem cell transplant.

To help kill some of the cancerous cells and get the body ready to accept the new stem cells, most patients need very strong chemotherapy. For me, this was the strongest chemo I had, and the idea was daunting.  

Whattosaytosomeonewithcancer.jpgWhen a friend or loved one receives a cancer diagnosis, it's important to be there and show you care. But finding the right words can be hard.

What can you say that won't scare or upset your friend or loved one? What can you say that will give them the hope and strength they need to confront cancer?

We recently asked the cancer patients, survivors and caregivers in our Facebook community to share the best things to say to someone with cancer.

Here's what they recommend.

Judith MillerBy Judith Miller

I always tell women to get their regular mammograms. That's how doctors spotted my lung cancer.

A chance lung cancer diagnosis
Because I have a history of dense breast tissue, I know my annual mammogram will always show suspicious areas. I also know that each time my primary care physician will send me for further testing to be certain that these suspicious areas are not harboring cancer cells. 

This is what happened early in July 2012, and sure enough, an MRI confirmed that the areas in question were scar tissue.

However, after sharing this good news, the breast cancer specialist asked: "Has anyone ever told you that you have a malignant tumor on your upper right lung?"

At first, I thought that was a strange question. I would have certainly addressed such an announcement immediately. 

KarenFore - multiple myeloma.jpgBy Karen Fore

I have an iron-clad immune system -- or so I thought. I was hardly ever sick.

That is, until 2009 and 2010, when I got the flu. I blamed not getting my flu shot. I also was unusually busy at work and blamed my fatigue, weight loss and fuzzy brain on stress. After having a fever for no apparent reason, I went to an urgent care clinic. 

Given my recent weight loss and fatigue, the doctor decided to do some bloodwork. The results showed I was significantly anemic, so he decided to do more blood work. After two weeks of connecting the dots with other lab tests, he told me to come to his office -- and to bring someone with me. 

That's when I learned a new term - multiple myeloma. My doctor explained that this was a form of blood cancer that starts in the bone marrow. I hadn't  seen that coming! 

I set out to find someone who specialized in treating multiple myeloma. After interviewing doctors at another hospital and MD Anderson, I chose MD Anderson. The doctor I'd met with at MD Anderson was one of the world's premier multiple myeloma oncologists, so I knew I'd be in the best hands. Plus, my sister had started cancer treatment at MD Anderson two years earlier, so I knew MD Anderson well.

My multiple myeloma treatment
I started chemotherapy within a week of my first appointment at MD Anderson. When that didn't work, we tried another treatment.


By Anton Blender

In 2003, Bethany Brown found out she'd gotten an interview for nursing school. She tried calling her father to share the good news, but he didn't answer. When she finally got ahold of him, Bethany gave her father a hard time for not answering earlier.

That's when he told her why he'd been reluctant to take her call: her biopsy results had come back. She had cancer -- specifically, sarcoma.

Fear and determination in the face of sarcoma
Looking back 12 years later, Bethany recalls her first reaction was "fear, absolute fear." She was only 20 at the time and remembers crying louder than she'd ever cried before -- so loud that a neighbor heard her through the wall and came to check on her.


By Gillian Kruse

I didn't feel ill when I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The only reason I went to the doctor in the first place was because I'd finally started a full-time job with benefits after graduating from college, and I figured I'd take advantage of my health insurance and get a physical exam for the first time in years.

The actual physical was what you'd expect and took hardly any time at all. I gave a vial of blood for the routine bloodwork and met up with a friend afterwards to stuff my face with unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks after fasting all morning. I went home with generic instructions to not eat too much junk food and try and exercise a bit every day -- basically the same things every doctor tells every patient.

My unexpected AML diagnosis
I did not expect to get a call from my doctor's office in the middle of holiday shopping with my in-laws. "Your white blood cell count is high, though it can go up if you're fighting off an infection," the nurse told me. She asked if I was feeling OK. I felt normal, so she told me to come back and have my blood drawn again. Maybe the lab had made a mistake.

They hadn't. Within a few days, I got another call from my primary care physician. She'd put in a referral for me to see one of the hematologists at her clinic.

Mariana Torrado BRCA1

By Mariana Torrado

No one expects to hear she has breast cancer two months after turning 30. I didn't.

I danced flamenco, exercised frequently, was neither overweight nor a smoker -- and I was only 30! How could this happen to me?

My unexpected breast cancer diagnosis
After feeling a second of pain -- a small pinch -- in my left breast, I noticed a large bump. I was in shock, scared. I reached out to my OB-GYN right away.

A mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy later, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

I was in shock. I had two cousins (sisters) with breast cancer in their 30s, an aunt with breast cancer, a cousin who died from brain cancer, and two cousins and an uncle with melanoma. But I'd never expected to have cancer, not now.


By Lindi Senez

Fighting cancer is truly a team effort. But what happens when the caregiver of the team is no longer the caregiver? What happens when your loved one passes away, and you have to find your new normal?

This is what I've struggled to figure out since my husband, Dave, died one year ago on June 30, 2014.

Saying goodbye to Dave and my role as his caregiver
For eight years, Dave fought hemangiopericytoma, a type of brain tumor, in the most relentless, selfless journey I've ever witnessed. I was his full-time caregiver while continuing to teach high school science, run our family's brain tumor foundation and care for our beautiful, blue-eyed baby boy.

After sleepless nights researching brain tumors and clinical trials that might provide relief, I began to listen when Dave said, "You'll be OK."

Still, I wasn't quite sure how I would find meaning in my life again.

Debra-Ruzensky caregiverBy Debra Ruzensky

In 2013, my role at MD Anderson changed when my husband was diagnosed with stage three diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Now I wasn't just a registered dietitian. I was a caregiver, too.

Seeing a new side of MD Anderson during lymphoma treatment
Every three weeks, my husband was admitted at MD Anderson for five to six days. Each time, I moved into his hospital room with him. I worked here during the day and went up to his room in the evenings. I ate here, showered and dressed here, heated my meals in the family lounge and made my morning cup of coffee here.

It was mentally difficult to "change hats." My eyes and ears were always in tune to his nutrition and the value it plays in treatment tolerance and recovery. Meeting some of the other caregivers on the floor and comparing notes was helpful, but at times it added to my worry and stress. I didn't want to hear any negative stories. I was trying to hold it all together and stay positive.

I had a great support system of family, friends, and coworkers praying and offering to help in other ways. The chapel was a special place for me to quietly sit and pray or just be calm.  Sunday morning masses were also a huge comfort to me.


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