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amanda915.jpgBy Amanda Woodward

When I was undergoing melanoma treatment, I encountered a lot of people who struggled to find the right words to say to me.

I get it: it's awkward. But the things you say can have a big impact on cancer patients. Some things may do more harm than good. This includes things like "My cousin's friend's nephew's aunt had that same kind of cancer. She died." Ditto for "Have your tried eating kale? I heard that gets rid of cancer."

To help make the world a kinder place for cancer patients, I got together with some friends and made a list of what to say to someone with cancer.

Here's our list:  

"This really sucks!"
Preach! Cancer sucks. Chemo sucks. Radiation sucks. Surgery sucks. Being bald sucks. Chances are acknowledging this will get you a smirk from most cancer patients. Sometimes just showing a little empathy can be is a huge motivator.

"How can I help?"
But you can't stop there. Most cancer patients will tell you everything's fine, even though they could really use your help with something small. So just help. Try something. Show up at 9 to drive us to our 10 a.m. appointment. Have we mentioned that we don't feel like cooking? Pop over around dinner time with some grub! Even if your idea is a total fail, try. We love and recognize the supportive gestures.

Brittanyhurst912.jpgBy Brittany Hurst

After my ovarian cancer diagnosis, I knew some type of chemotherapy would probably be involved. But losing my hair didn't cross my mind until after I received a handout about chemo at my first doctor's appointment.
 
Hair loss was listed as a side effect of chemo. That's when it started to sink in. This was happening. I was going to lose my hair.

I won't lie. Losing your hair sucks. But after a couple weeks, I realized that my hair was going to grow back, and I had more important things to worry about. I was fighting for my life.

The reality of hair loss during ovarian cancer treatment
I hate to say this, but my hair was my "thing." I had been blonde my whole life and had been growing my hair out forever. I loved fixing it every day. (Well, almost every day.)  Losing my pretty, long blonde hair made me sad.

BethWilliams911.jpgHoustonian Beth Williams didn't come to MD Anderson when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her mid-30s. But when she received a colon cancer diagnosis nearly 20 years later, she couldn't imagine going anywhere else. "I felt like if I was going to survive, I needed to be at MD Anderson," Beth says.

The 76-year-old CEO of an international language and logistics company now jokingly calls herself an MD Anderson "frequent flier." In the past two decades, she's been treated here for four different types of cancer. That includes colon cancer, breast cancer and -- just this past year -- kidney cancer and skin cancer. Her multiple cancer diagnoses don't appear to be based on genetics, just luck.

Still, Beth doesn't consider herself unlucky, and she doesn't let cancer run her life. Below, she shares her advice for thriving in the face of cancer.

Don't wait to go to MD Anderson.
Beth encourages newly diagnosed cancer patients to go straight to MD Anderson. "The care you get is amazing," she says. "I had so much confidence in everybody at MD Anderson, and no one ever has let me down or disappointed me."

anna jackson 2.5.14.jpgBy Anna Masten Jackson

Finding out you have cancer brings so many questions to mind. Finding out you have a very rare cancer, like thymoma, brings even more -- and often those questions have no answers.

Just as a cancer patient has many questions, so do those who care about us. Since my thymoma diagnosis, I've learned that some questions are easy to answer, while others cause you to face possibilities that perhaps hadn't even crossed your mind.

Here are some of the questions I'm often asked:

susanwoods98.jpgBy Susan Dixon Woods

In June 2009, I noticed a tinge of blood in my urine, but I quickly dismissed it because I had bigger fish to fry at the time. My husband's business had suffered financial losses, and we had just sent our daughter to a long-term treatment program across the country. I never thought it could be a bladder cancer symptom.

In August, I finally made an appointment with a local urologist, thinking I had a mild urinary tract infection (UTI). I went alone with the intentions of returning to work after the appointment. The urine specimen they collected showed traces of blood, but no bacteria.

A cystoscopy was performed and revealed a tumor at the dome of the bladder. I calmly asked, "Could it be cancer?" The doctor responded, "It likely is."

My bladder cancer diagnosis and treatment
A few weeks later, I underwent a transurethral resection (TUR), a surgery in which the tumor is scraped from the bladder, then a partial cystectomy. Both confirmed that I had urachal adenocarcinoma, a rare type of bladder cancer. It represents less than 0.5 to 2% of all bladder cancers, and research showed survival at less than a year.

All I could think about was that I could not die because my family needed me. Yes, you could say I was a control freak and thought the world would not go on without me.

clinicaltrialhunt.jpgBy Lori Baker

Bringing patients new and better cancer treatments through clinical trials is what sets MD Anderson apart. It's more than a goal or a point of pride. It's a passion. And we offer more cancer trials than anyplace else. 

Clinical trials are the key to developing new cancer treatment options. Advances only reach patients by going through clinical trials, which are the final step in a long process to find better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

"People's health is at stake," says Hagop Kantarjian, M.D., chair of Leukemia. "So trials are conducted only after the procedure or medication has passed many steps that provide confidence it's better than what's available as standard of care. Trials are meticulously designed, reviewed and monitored. Their importance and complexity require expertise and supporting infrastructure, and MD Anderson has no equal in these areas."

Saving lives through clinical trials
Kantarjian personally has conducted 345 clinical trials in his 34 years at MD Anderson. He says he's motivated and inspired by the people he works with, as well as our patients.

"MD Anderson is the best place in the world because of everyone's incredible will to do good by making a difference for so many patients," Kantarjian says.

PA.jpgBy Mary Brolley

They've been called essential, a driving force and, in a nod to their adaptability, "the stem cells of MD Anderson."

They're physician assistants (PAs), and few institutions employ more of them than MD Anderson.

PAs are medical professionals who can conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel patients on preventive care, assist in surgery, and write prescriptions. Supervised by physicians, they're sometimes called mid-level providers -- a category that also includes nurse practitioners and certified nurse anesthetists.

Of our 245 PAs, nearly half work in Surgery and Anesthesia. The others are divided among Cancer Medicine, Internal Medicine, Radiation Oncology and Pediatrics.

Our PAs also counsel patients, obtain informed consents and perform numerous medical procedures. In partnership with doctors, often they lead the evaluation and management of treatment for patients in special clinics.

Freeing up physicians
PAs are crucial to the operation of MD Anderson's 11 survivorship clinics, according to Todd Pickard, program director and mid-level provider in Medical Affairs. Transitioning cancer survivors to the care of PAs and internists frees our doctors to take care of newer and more complex cases.

hannahgaylene.jpgBy Gaylene Meeson

In July 2012, my husband and I heard the words "your daughter has a brain tumor," and our lives changed forever. You hear about adults being diagnosed all the time, but we didn't even know that children could have cancer.

At the time, Hannah was only 4 years old and getting ready to start school in the Cayman Islands, where we live. But when the doctors said she had anaplastic medulloblastoma, an aggressive type of brain tumor, we found ourselves embarking on our epic battle to help her stay alive.

Our childhood cancer journey: Starting medulloblastoma treatment

After a surgery in Miami, we moved from the Cayman Islands to Houston so that Hannah could undergo proton therapy at MD Anderson, followed by six months of chemotherapy. Our family was split up, and the treatment was brutal. Hannah was wasting away before our eyes, and we could do nothing but pump more drugs into her to try and stop the cancer.

We kept focused on the end date of May 2013, when we thought we could finally go home and life would return to normal. But in April 2013, we received further devastating news: the cancer had progressed.

rachel-cruz-82.jpgBy Rachel Cruz

Even though I'm a melanoma survivor, I rarely associated cancer with life until recently. Mortality statistics are abundant and easy to research, and we all know too many people who have succumbed to the disease. Those are the statistics and experiences that tend to come to mind when you hear the word "cancer." 

But when I attended the Anderson Network Cancer Survivorship Conference last year, I realized that there is life after cancer. And not just life, but positive, healthful living.
 
Three years ago I was diagnosed with melanoma 16 weeks into my first pregnancy.

Fortunately, my melanoma was removed 19 days after it was diagnosed, and I delivered a healthy baby right on schedule.

What I gained from the Anderson Network Cancer Survivorship Conference

With my melanoma treatment behind me, I began volunteering at MD Anderson. A few of the other volunteers invited me to attend the Cancer Survivorship Conference. 


I was intrigued by the wonderful set of breakout sessions that were on the agenda, and also by the Saturday morning medical panel, which featured MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho, M.D., as well as my own wonderful doctor, Jeffrey Gershenwald, M.D., professor of Surgical Oncology.  I really liked the idea of attending a conference where I could learn not just about melanoma, but also about medical and psychosocial issues that other cancer survivors often face.

I gained so much more from the experience, though.

pediatricArt_Dragon_0004.jpgBy Ian Cion

For the past five months, I've been working with more than 1,300 patients, family members, and staff at MD Anderson to create a monumental scale river dragon sculpture entitled Okoa the Wave Rider. The sculpture, a project made possible by the Arts in Medicine Program, was built entirely on site in the Main Building. You may have seen it on display, or maybe even contributed to it, in The Park.

The name, "Okoa," was selected through a vote by the patients and families who helped create the dragon. It's a Swahili word that means "rescue, save, redeem or deliver."

It's a fitting name, as Okoa was built to demonstrate the effectiveness of community art in bringing joy and relief into the cancer center.  

The sculpture and the art table where patients, families and staff joined together to make it were actually both works of art. What make the dragon so beautiful are the sculpture and the time shared in its creation, the simple fact that these thousands of people were excited to contribute, to take time out of their day, to stop and laugh and draw or paint, to share their stories with each other around the table.

How we made the dragon

Since its inception in 2010, the Arts in Medicine Program has focused on large-scale, long-term creative collaborations with patients and families undergoing treatment at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital. But this project was the first to bring together patients, families and staff from the entire hospital.

Alex Magdaleno828.jpgBy Alex Magdaleno

When I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in December 2008, I thought my life as I knew it was over. I thought it was not only a death sentence, but I also feared my love for exercise would cease.

I had always been active. I lifted weights and played football. But when I received my CLL diagnosis at age 25, I decided to take up marathon running to prove to myself that I could do it in spite of my cancer. Although it's been a challenge, I believe marathon running has helped keep me alive.

Marathon training during CLL treatment
Since my CLL diagnosis, I've undergone various treatments, ranging from radiation to a chemotherapy regimen called R-CHOP (cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine and prednisone). Now I'm taking an oral drug, Zydelig and rituxan. Through it all, running has allowed me to put my energy into something that gives me life. I completed my first marathon in May 2009, less than a year after my diagnosis. Since then, I've completed 12 more marathons. I try to run 50 to 60 miles a week, working around my dosages and doctors appointments.

Many days, what should be a simple 10-mile run involves a handful bouts of vomiting induced nausea, but there is no greater feeling than the satisfaction I get when I finish a run. I envision my disease as an actual person. With every run or marathon I complete, it's me telling HIM that I'm winning!

Kyssi827.jpgFor 5-year-old Khyrstin Andrews, better known as Kyssi, and her mom, Marla, it was just as tough when Kyssi lost her hair the third time as it was the first.

In 2012, Kyssi was diagnosed with a Wilms' Tumor, a type of childhood cancer that affects the kidneys. After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, she was declared cancer-free. But not long after that, her Wilms' Tumor returned and metastasized to her lungs. She underwent a surgery and an intense type of chemotherapy called ICE (a combination of ifosfamide, carboplatin and etoposide).

In January 2014, Kyssi was declared cancer-free once again. But at her six-month follow-up appointment, doctors found that Kyssi's cancer had returned a third time. As always, Kyssi and her family, friends and more than 160,000 Facebook page supporters and more than 9,000 Instagram followers, were ready to beat Wilms' Tumor -- and smile while doing it.

Kyssi and Marla, an inseparable pair, know it's important to look on the bright side even on the toughest days, so they decided to make shaving Kyssi's head as fun as possible.

Here are Marla's tips for those helping others cope with hair loss: 

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