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bree226.jpgBy Bree Sandlin

In the summer of 2012, I was diagnosed with stage three triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). I was 37 years old and had 5-year-old twin boys, one with severe cerebral palsy. Having a child with special needs, my husband and I were no strangers to hospitals and doctors. Despite those experiences, nothing could have prepared us for the words "you have cancer."  

The next year of my life was one of the most difficult, and as I was soon to learn, one of the most inspiring. For my TNBC treatment, I underwent six months of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, an oophorectomy and two months of radiation therapy.  

On February 13, 2013, my husband and I heard the three most amazing letters ever recited:  
"pCR." Pathologic Complete Response. The cancer was gone, and I was officially in remission!  

We cried, hugged our oncologist, hugged our kids, and embraced each other. We decided at that moment that this was a day worth remembering. The end of my TNBC would mark my cancerversary date. Our own personal pre-Valentine's Day celebration of love and joy.

Celebrating my first TNBC cancerversary by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
When TNBC cancerversary number one arrived in 2014, we decided to go big. My husband and I joined a team of 16 cancer survivors and like-minded cancer-haters to climb the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro. Kili reaches 19,341 feet and rises high above the surrounding plains of Tanzania, Africa. The experience was life-changing.  

jaymee225.jpgBy Jaymee Fiskum

I wasn't the only one diagnosed with anaplastic large T cell lymphoma small cell variant (ALCL) in May 2013. My entire family took on my cancer journey as if it was their own.

Because of them, I consider myself lucky -- as weird as it may sound. I have so much support in my life. It motivated me to fight harder. I couldn't let myself down, but I couldn't let all of them down either.

How my family helped me cope with ALCL
Each one of my family members played a huge part in my cancer journey.

After my doctor told me I had ALCL. In September 2013, I began six cycles of chemotherapy, followed by a stem cell transplant. I was very fortunate enough to have my sister as my donor. Who would've thought letting her borrow my clothes all those years would pay off?

Cancer_Detection_202.jpgBy Angela Young

When Samuel Loftin's blood work showed an unusual level of liver enzymes,  a gastroenterologist near his Alabama home recommended an ultrasound of his liver. When that test was negative, the doctor ordered an MRI, which showed two suspicious liver lesions, as well as an abnormality in his spine. Samuel's doctor said it was probably cancer and that spots on his spine meant it might have spread to his vertebrae. Samuel was referred to a nearby cancer center.

"My doctor set up the appointment, but it was three weeks away. I just couldn't wait that long," Samuel says.

He called MD Anderson and got an appointment right away at the Mary Ann Weiser Suspicion of Cancer Clinic. Created in 2001, the clinic is named for a former MD Anderson doctor who wanted to focus on detecting cancer at its earliest stages. Weiser always was looking for a challenge, according to colleagues.

"When patients try to come here without a clear diagnosis, it can be difficult for them to come in the front door," says John Patlan, M.D., in General Internal Medicine. "Dr. Weiser's goal was to make it easier for them."

After Weiser died in 2006, Patlan took over leadership of the clinic. Two years ago, the clinic received additional funding, and now it has a dedicated workspace in the Internal Medicine Center and a second doctor, Michael Perdon, M.D., in General Internal Medicine.


Patlan works in the clinic three days a week, and Perdon takes over on the other two days. Veronica Smith, a nurse practitioner, works full-time, and Maura Polansky, a physician assistant, works in the clinic one morning a week. Together, the team sees 15 to 20 concerned, but hopeful, new patients each week.

Patlan estimates they spend three or four hours with each patient beyond the initial one-hour clinic visit. That includes coordination of multiple diagnostic studies and phone calls to the patient and to other doctors.

Next-day appointments for Houston patients
Often, patients who live in the Houston area are surprised they can get an appointment at the Suspicion of Cancer Clinic the day after they call. When they arrive for their first appointment, Smith, the nurse practitioner  is usually the first provider they see, and they share their fears with her.

"Dealing with the unknown causes them so much anxiety," Smith says. "Some patients say they feel better even if they find out they do have cancer."

LindaRyansons223.jpgBy Linda Ryan

As cervical cancer survivor, I have spent considerable time and energy trying to protect my children from cancer. I didn't want them to feel the emotional effects of my own cancer journey, and I certainly don't want them to go what I went through.    

When it comes to cancer prevention, there is something I can do now to reduce their chances of being diagnosed with certain cancers in the future: Vaccinate against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause several types of cancer. That includes cervical cancer, as well as head and neck cancers, anal cancer, vulvar cancer and rare genital cancers.

What the HPV vaccine prevents
I know the phrase "HPV vaccine" can conjure up negative connotations, but the words "cancer" and "chemotherapy" are much worse in my book.

Most people don't consider chemo easy or fun. For me, the side effects were painful. When I was undergoing cervical cancer treatment, I didn't have a port, so I received my chemotherapy through an IV. My infusions were close to nine hours long. Some of the medicines and hydration irritated my veins and caused pain that needed to be managed with heat, cold, and eventually, medicine. The pain often brought me to tears.  

Had I been given the chance to be vaccinated 30 years ago vs. having a hysterectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy and live with the worry that I may not see my children grow up, I know what I would have chosen. And, it's what I chose for my two sons.

jasiarussell220.jpgBy Carol Bryce

Growing up in Jefferson, Texas, Jasia Russell, didn't know anything about physical therapy.
That changed when Russell was 16 and her beloved grandfather suffered an abdominal aneurysm.

"He'd been a farmer and a rancher -- a very active man," she recalls. "Then he had to have both legs amputated above the knees. I thought he'd be bedridden for the rest of his life."
But thanks to physical therapy, Russell's grandfather regained his independence.

"He'd go from riding his power chair or golf cart to mowing the lawn on his four-wheeler. He lived another eight years and had very good quality of life," she says.

When she saw the impact physical therapy can have on a patient, she decided to become a physical therapist.

Preparing for a career at MD Anderson

After earning a bachelor of science in Kinesiology at the University of North Texas in Denton and spending "three years of blizzards" completing a doctorate in physical therapy near Chicago, Russell returned to Texas. She was finishing her final physical therapy rotation at another Houston hospital when something caught her eye.

"I was driving around the medical center and noticed MD Anderson's buildings," she recalls.
"And I thought, 'What an incredible place that would be to work.' "

bobbrigham217.jpgBy Lindsay Lewis

Last month, MD Anderson gained a new leader for our inpatient and outpatient clinical operations. Bob Brigham, our new senior vice president for Hospital and Clinics, is excited about his new role -- and supporting our mission to end cancer.

We recently spoke with Brigham to learn more about him and his plans for improving our patients' experiences at MD Anderson. Here's what he had to say:

What experience do you bring?
I worked at the Mayo Clinic for 36 years. My career path there afforded me the opportunity to develop a diverse set of health care experiences. After starting as a staff nurse, I moved through a number of roles, including nurse manager, operating room director and nursing director, as well as clinic and hospital administration. I worked with patients and staff in many clinical and administrative areas. From 2005 until I started here, I was chief administrative officer and chair of administration at the Jacksonville, Florida, campus, leading Mayo's patient care and non-patient care operations in the southeast.

What inspired you to enter nursing?

When I was in college, my interests and skills leaned toward careers in health care. I was fortunate to have a radiologist friend who was willing to let me spend a January term with him. I saw firsthand many of the different roles within health care. I particularly resonated with one person who was passionate about life, his family and the work he did every day as a nurse. That career hadn't occurred to me, given the few men in nursing in the 1970s, but the thought of entering the field and doing something different excited me.

Kate Boone218.jpgBy Kate Boone

My name is Kate, and I have stage four melanoma. I received my initial diagnosis three years ago. I went to a surgeon, they got clean lines and I followed up with my dermatologist. So whew, crisis averted.

My melanoma recurrence
In June 2014, I first noticed a lump under my left arm. I had just completed a 30-day yoga challenge, so I figured all the sweating had led to a blocked lymph node. My husband, the worrier, insisted I see a doctor.

I didn't even have a primary care doctor at the time, so scheduling an appointment was a challenge. I heard a lot of "We're not taking any new patients," or "Give it a few weeks."

My husband wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. So, my sister, a nursing student at the time, got me into the school clinic for an ultrasound and eventually a biopsy. The results came back positive for melanoma. 

bentz217.jpgBy Lindsay Lewis and Mindy Loya

Five years ago, Gary Bentz was completing the last of his 34 radiation treatments and his third round of chemotherapy to destroy a tumor at the base of his tongue -- along with the cancer cells that spread to nearby lymph nodes. His cancer was stage 4.

Today, Bentz -- who's cancer-free -- is back at MD Anderson, but for a much different reason. He's one of 28 patient advisors who are volunteering their time to help us shape policies and programs to improve the patient experience.

Why we need patient feedback and involvement
Bentz and the other members of our Patient and Family Advisory Council come to MD Anderson at least once a month to share stories and provide feedback on issues impacting our patients.

And, many of them now serve on committees that previously only included our employees.

"Having a patient at the table with us is very powerful," says John Bingham, vice president for Performance Improvement. His Patient Safety Committee was one of the first to request patient involvement. "It'll accelerate our efforts to keep our patients safer."

Cuchapin216.jpgBy Lindsey Garner

Chris Cuchapin is proud to be one of the first faces patients and their families see when they visit MD Anderson.

As a patient services coordinator in Diagnostic Imaging, Cuchapin checks patients in at the front desk and keeps them updated on the status of their appointments while they wait.

After several of his family members were diagnosed with the disease, he joined MD Anderson to try to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families. Inspired by his family's experiences, he does his best to make our patients feel welcome. You often can find him handing out warm blankets and coffee, and when he has time, strumming on his ukulele.

"I remember my family saying how they appreciated it when a hospital felt more like a home," he says. "I just want to do my best to brighten patients' days and let them know I'm here for them."

The backbone of MD Anderson

Patient services coordinators balance requests from the entire care team, patients and family members.

"They're the backbone of MD Anderson in a lot of ways," says Elizabeth Lottinger, a Human Resources consultant. "They often set the stage for what the patient experience is going to be."

Their responsibilities vary depending upon where they work at MD Anderson. Their duties can include scheduling appointments; entering doctors' orders for medications, tests and procedures; answering patients' scheduling questions submitted to our health information specialists; and responding to non-medical requests.

Often compared to jugglers and air traffic controllers, our patient services coordinators help keep the flow of a clinic or center in check while also directing our employees and our supplies where they need to be.

Scheduling appointments is far more complex than it seems, Neicy Leonard shares. A patient services coordinator in our Colorectal Center, she compares it to playing chess.

kielaszek.jpgBy Barbara Kielaszek

My cancer story began over 40 years ago when my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sadly, my grandmother waited too long to see a doctor. Even though she had a double mastectomy and showed her courageous spirit during her cancer journey, the cancer had spread and my grandmother died within a few years. 

About the same time my grandmother received her breast cancer diagnosis, my mom found a lump that turned out to be breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy of her left breast. Ten years later, Mom found a lump in her right breast followed by another mastectomy. It's been 30 years since Mom's second mastectomy -- and she's been cancer-free ever since then.
 
When I received my own breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 55 I had two examples of tremendous heart, spirit and courage to follow. For me, that made all the difference.

My breast cancer diagnosis
I started getting annual mammograms after my mom received her second diagnosis. Each year, I almost expected to hear the words, "You have cancer."

That phone call finally came in June 2013. I had infiltrating ductal carcinoma. 

smbefore.jpgBy Stephanie Madsen

As I completed my last round of chemotherapy a few weeks ago, I thought back to the woman I was before cancer. Looking back at how much life has changed -- and how much I've changed -- I decided to write a letter to myself just before I was diagnosed with large cell neuroendocrine cervical cancer.

Dear Stephanie of January 2012,

On January 25, 2012, you will be diagnosed with cancer. And three years later -- almost to the day -- you will finish chemo treatment and be on a new journey. Be encouraged. Those three years will be some of the hardest years of your life, but they'll shape you in ways no other experience could. Be grateful.

You are both stronger and weaker than you could ever imagine. Life is about to show you that.
Here's what I want you to know about yourself now -- before cancer -- and what's to come.

Stay ready. You are young, healthy, vibrant, and full of energy and dreams. You are working hard and enjoy your job. You have married the love of your life and are thrilled to come home to him every day. This truly feels like the beginning of an incredible journey, and you and your husband feel ready to conquer anything. Ready for whatever the future has in store for you. You think that means a white picket fence and two children. You feel ready for a reason, but it's not the reason you think. Stay ready.

Facebook_hearts2.jpgOften, cancer can put a strain on your relationships. Whether you're a patient, caregiver, family member or friend of a patient, it's emotionally tough for everyone. But those relationships can be what help you through your cancer journey the most. So, what can you do to stay close with your loved ones while dealing with cancer?

We asked our Facebook community what they do to stay connected with their loved ones during treatment. Here's what they had to say.

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