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By Kristine Keeny

For many, the holidays mean food and fun with friends and family. But for us cancer patients and survivors, the holidays mean the stress that comes with dealing with all those things.

During my sarcoma treatment, I had to go out of my way to avoid small children and anyone who looked like they might have a cold at holiday events. Even now that I've completed sarcoma treatment, I have to avoid a long list of vegetables and all dairy products. 

But along the way I've learned how to get by during the holidays. Here are my tips for cancer patients and survivors on staying healthy during the holidays. Try them, and you might start some fun new traditions at the same time.

1. Ask your health care team for advice. Your medical team will be able to guide you when it comes to what you have to drop completely and what you can have "just a little of." If you're on a special diet, ask about alternatives. I was told to try tofurkey instead of a regular turkey so I could avoid some of the ingredients commonly added to turkey. It worked for me, and I don't have to worry about offending anyone. 

maryginley312.jpgBy Mary Ginley

Last fall, I had trouble swallowing. I assumed it was acid reflux and went to the doctor for some swallow tests. My doctor also suspected it was acid reflex. That afternoon, he called to say we were both wrong.

"It's bad, Mary. It's esophageal cancer. You need an endoscopy and biopsy immediately, and you need to clear your calendar. It's going to be rough."

I remember sitting down, stunned. I had never heard of esophageal cancer. While I always go into a mammogram braced for the worst, it hadn't occurred to me that the swallowing tests could reveal something equally serious.

After my endoscopy the next day, the doctor sat down with my husband and me. He said there was a mass in my esophagus that had gone into the esophageal wall, and that at least one lymph node was involved.

"I'm sending you for PET scan and CT scan. That will tell us more," he said. "If it's spread further, chemotherapy will give you a little more time."

"Wait," I told him. "I need a LOT more time."

Giving thanks after esophageal cancer

That was a year ago. And, it looks as if I'm going to get a LOT more time. But no one really knows, do they?  All we have is this moment, this hour, this day.  I'd love to have a lot more time, but if I don't, I am ever so grateful for the time I have had. 

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, but my true Thanksgiving is October 29, the anniversary of my esophageal cancer diagnosis. I have so much to be thankful for on this anniversary.

amanda1119.jpgBy Amanda Woodward

Sometimes I ponder the inevitable conversation with my kids about my melanoma diagnosis. I know I can dodge the subject for a while and chalk the frequent check-ups up to simply that -- check-ups. At some point, though, I will have to share that "mommy had melanoma" and all that it means.

YUCK! Not a day that I look forward to and certainly not something I'm prepared for.

But my melanoma journey has taught me a thing or two about sun safety and caring for my skin, and I want to share that knowledge with my kids.

Here's a short list of things I hope our kids come to know about sun safety and their skin.

Harley731.jpgBy Harley Hudson

I decided to keep a diary of my stem cell transplant experience so it might help others in preparing for their stem cell transplants. You can read my previous entries here.

I used to own a primitive flight simulator that I ran using the keyboard. I could take off and fly any airplane on the list. What I couldn't do was land. I had two problems: I was ignorant of the process, and I was impatient. I had never flown before, so I had no idea what was involved.

My stem cell transplant experience -- a part of my chronic lymphocyctic leukemia (CLL) treatment -- was much like using the flight stimulator. Pre-flight was like all those tests leading up to my stem cell transplant. Takeoff was Day 0 when the transplant actually began -- and when there could be turbulence in the lower atmosphere. Things generally smoothed out at cruising altitude a few weeks later.

Now, I'm focused on landing -- in other words, going home.

Preparing to leave the hospital after my stem cell transplant
The landing started when medications change from IV to pills. This was the beginning of the 90-day restaging. The SCT Survivor's class was ordered. Chest X-rays were taken. PET scans, CT scans, bone marrow biopsies were all scheduled. It seemed like we are starting all over again.

1113Rita.jpgBy Rita Avila

Not too long ago, one of my good friends got hitched and, over a year later, got married to the man of her dreams. It was a gorgeous wedding, and I was extremely happy for her, but it made me think: Am I ever going to get married?

As if dating weren't tricky enough, I have the added pressure of telling any guy I'm interested in that I've had tongue cancer and I still have the scars, the feeding tube and the follow-up appointments that came along with it.

Telling others about my tongue cancer treatment
Sometimes the idea of dating is scarier than cancer itself. Specifically, the idea of telling someone, "Hi, I'm Rita, and I've had cancer." No matter how hard I try, I can't make it sound remotely sexy or badass.

I've even tried, "Hi, I'm Rita, and I kicked cancer's ass." Nope. Still, nothing. I think most guys would either turn around and walk out, or feel sorry for me. And the last thing I need is for someone to look at me like, "Bless your poor little cancer-having soul," and feel pity for me. I don't need your pity, hot guy! I want you to think I'm sexy. But alas, sexy and cancer don't really go well together in the same sentence.

1112jamimayberry.jpgBy Jami Mayberry

When I was first diagnosed with vulvar cancer, I wasn't sure what journey lie ahead of me. So many decisions to make.

When my doctor, Patricia Eifel, M.D., laid out my radiation treatment plan, it seemed rather long. But I thought I could do it. Then she decided to add chemotherapy once a week as well. So, on Mondays, I got radiation in the morning and chemo for five hours in the afternoon. Mondays were very long days.

Stressing over my vulvar cancer treatment

About three weeks into my treatments, I began to feel agitated and began to suffer from vulvar cancer treatment side effects. I didn't want to have cancer. I didn't want chemo and the weakness and nausea that go with it.

I didn't want the endless IV insertions. I have small veins anyway and it was painful to find one. They didn't give me a port because I was scheduled for only six chemo cycles.

anna jackson 2.5.14.jpgBy Anna Masten Jackson

I have found a lot of new normals after my thymoma diagnosis. There is the new normal of a few aches and pains, reminders of surgeries past. There is the new normal of curly hair after years of mine being bone straight. There is the new normal of using vacation time to travel for medical care -- care for which I am so grateful!

Returning to MD Anderson for a checkup
Last week, we returned to MD Anderson for my checkup and received great news that my thymoma is stable. We will go back in six months and repeat the process. 

For now, I have been given six months that feel like freedom. Six months of no thymoma treatment. Six months of no surgery. Six months that I can plan my life as much as any other human can plan hers.

Ivananov.jpgBy Ivana L. Camarillo

I've been a fighter since I was a baby. As a childhood cancer survivor, strength runs through my blood and every cell I have.

At 9 months old, I was diagnosed with infant leukemia. At 1, I received a cord blood transplant at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital. I finished all active treatments for my cancer when I was 5, and I have now been cancer-free for 10 years.

Undergoing childhood leukemia treatment

Being so small when I had to fight for my life, I have very few memories of my leukemia journey. I remember being isolated all the time, and I remember looking at my hands and seeing little pieces of my skin fall off, a cord blood transplant side effect.

I even remember starting school and realizing that everything I thought was normal was in fact not normal at all. Being bald was not normal. Having scars was not normal. Going to doctor's appointments every month was not normal.

The faces of cancer

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michele.jpgBy Michele Longabaugh

My husband Jerry and I left on a Sunday to drive to MD Anderson for yet another anal cancer checkup. The weather was forecasted to be balmy, so we packed our shorts. The drive was beautiful. As we cruised south, I watched the fall colors fading back to green closer to Houston.

Observations from an MD Anderson waiting room
I knew the next day would be big: it would be only the second time ever that I was going to receive my scan and results on the same day. I was excited about that. No waiting. It was a treat of sorts, really.

I arrived at the Mays Clinic for my blood draw and  made my way through the crowded waiting room to sign in before taking a seat. 

From my perch, I was able to observe the entire waiting area.

I played "who's the patient" in my mind for a little while, but then I found myself just looking at all the faces. The faces of cancer and those of the people who love and care for them. Young and old. Pale and tan. Smiling and sad. A worldwide representation of people -- some looking so tired and others, like me, their plight virtually undetectable on the surface. Hair in various stages of growth, wigs, caps or just embraced baldness. So many faces.

lindanov5.jpgDespite the challenges she faced, Houstonian Linda VandeGarde made the decision to focus on the bright side this year.

In January, on her birthday, Linda had a mammogram that revealed invasive ductal carcinoma in her left breast. Then, less than a month later, her mother passed away.

That's when Linda made the choice to be positive, no matter what. Early in her breast cancer treatment, following the advice of a book on breast cancer, she began keeping a journal and resolved to write about two silver linings she found each day -- a promise she's managed to keep.

"There were some days that were dark," she says, "but then I'd find little things, like a sparrow I saw or the church bells ringing."

Conquest Garden photos (1).JPGFrom the gardens to the skybridge to our leading doctors and kind volunteers, there are many things that set MD Anderson apart and help our patients feel at home. 

Whether it's your first appointment or you've become an old pro, you're likely to appreciate these 17 unique features.

1. Our 69 aquariums. The 66 freshwater and three saltwater live coral reef aquariums in our clinics are home to 3,000 fish -- mostly cichlids, angelfish and rainbow fish. The largest freshwater aquarium, by the Pharmacy in the Main Building, holds 850 gallons.

2. The Observation Deck.
Located on the 24th Floor of the Main Building, the Observation Deck offers peace and quiet, as well as a scenic view of Houston. You're also welcome to play the piano up there.

3. Our volunteers. MD Anderson is fortunate to have more than 1,200 volunteers who contributed  193,921 hours of service last year. Stop by our Hospitality Centers for a cup of coffee and to visit with these caring individuals, many of whom are survivors or caregivers themselves.

4. Our pianos. Twenty-five of our volunteers play the piano in The Park and the Mays Clinic between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. They also play at the Rotary House each day. If you're lucky, you may hear our harpist or one of our two flautists as well.

5. Room service. Inpatients -- as well as their families, caregivers and friends -- can order whatever they want from room service each day from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Our classically trained senior executive chef comes up with the menu of fresh, cooked-to-order meals.  

My colon cancer journey

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rosejohnsonnov.jpgBy Rose Johnson

Nearly 13 years ago, my doctors gave me six months to live. It had started as an ordinary day. I was getting ready for work when I noticed something protruding out of my navel. It scared me, so I went to my primary care doctor. He had never seen anything like that before, so he sent me to someone else. I ended up going to five doctors, none of whom could give me any answers.

Finally, a doctor ran some tests and told me I needed to get to MD Anderson as fast as I could. He said I had colon cancer. I had no other colon cancer symptoms -- not even pain -- but I did as I was told.

A surprising colon cancer diagnosis
After a barrage of testing, my doctors at MD Anderson finally told me that I had stage 4 colon cancer, and that it had metastasized to my liver, lungs and ovaries. They projected that I had about six months to live. My family and I were devastated. The Texas Medical Center was like a whole new world to me. I felt worried, nervous and anxious, wondering if I was going to live or die. 

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