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June 2012 Archives

By Wendy Harpham, M.D.

icarewendy.JPGWendy Harpham, M.D., a physician and cancer survivor, talks about side effects and how to discuss them with your doctor. She talks from the wisdom of her own cancer experience and also that of treating patients in her practice.

Wendy is featured in this video created by the Interpersonal Communication And Relationship Enhancement (iCare) program at MD Anderson "Talking about side effects".

Slouched on the exam table, I take a quick breath and sit up as the door squeaks open. My oncologist smiles and asks, "How are you, Wendy?"

This is a routine check-up. My cancer is in remission. The last thing I want to do is complain.

My oncologist sits down and looks at me expectantly. I hesitate before telling him about the persistent pain we've talked about at past visits. As for my new symptom, I'm almost too embarrassed to bring it up. But I do.

Why did I choose to talk about a symptom so strange that my Google search yielded no links to reputable sites? Why did I bring up a minor problem after we'd achieved our main goal and my cancer was in remission?

Because as a physician I knew intellectually that talking about side effects was the right thing to do. I believed -- I hoped -- that talking about my side effects could help my recovery.

Still, finding the courage to speak up took time and effort. Like many patients, I feared annoying my oncologist with too many complaints. I worried about disappointing him with my menagerie of symptoms, none of which were life-threatening.

As a doctor it fascinated me to watch myself hesitate to talk about my symptoms. Most of my feelings -- fear, embarrassment, desire to avoid more tests, worry about annoying him -- were subconscious.

By Jennifer Martin

metastaticmelanomadiagnosis.JPGMy husband, Steve, was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma in January 2012 at age 34. 

We have two daughters, ages 2 and 10. He had just started a job working from home and our life seemed to be going so smoothly. 

I had had some minor health issues that prevented me from working and Steve's new job enabled me to stay home and focus on getting better. 

One day in December 2011, Steve asked me to feel a strange lump on his neck. It was directly above his right clavicle and was swollen to about the size of an egg. 

I immediately started scouring the Internet to see if I could figure out what was going on. After a few minutes, I determined it was a supraclavicular lymph node. 

Everything I read about the right supraclavicular lymph node pointed to cancer or a very bad infection. 

Steve had just gotten over a cold, so I was hoping it had something to do with that. After a few days, it had not gone down. At this point he began to get worried, too, so we decided to go to the ER.

cancerpatientsupport.jpgBy Andrew Griffith

Andrew Griffith has mantle cell lymphoma and had an auto (November 2009) and an allo (August 2011) stem cell transplant. He lives in Canada and is married with two young adult children. He blogs at www.lymphomajourney.wordpress.com, is working on a book on his journey, and can be followed on Twitter @lymphomajourney.

Part II of yesterday's post: Supporting someone with cancer


We are individuals and react differently to what people say or don't say, do or don't do. The experience of cancer makes us more sensitive, and we need to look behind some of the clichés that family and friends may use to deal with their own discomfort.

We need to think back to when someone close to us had a difficult experience and how well we handled it -- or not -- and provided support.

One of my most intense times was with a colleague in the final stages of cancer. We both knew we didn't have much time and went right into the existential. With other friends, there is more a gradual scale, although with my closest friends we do touch these topics.

Recognize the awkwardness
It's awkward having cancer and telling people. It's awkward for family and friends who don't know what to say. Accept this and get over it. Serious illness is part of life that, sooner or later, hits everyone.

supportingsomeonewithcancer.jpgBy Andrew Griffith

Andrew Griffith has mantle cell lymphoma and had an auto (November 2009) and an allo (August 2011) stem cell transplant. He lives in Canada and is married with two young adult children. He blogs at www.lymphomajourney.wordpress.com, is working on a book on his journey, and can be followed on Twitter @lymphomajourney.

There has been a great deal written on what to say and what not to say to someone with cancer. Some of my favorite pieces are by:


Reflecting on these pieces and my own experience, much of this is common to any difficult circumstance, not just cancer.

Most writings focus on giving advice to family and friends, with less emphasis on the person living with cancer. Like any aspect of a relationship, the patient and other have a joint responsibility to make it through together, for close and even not-so-close family and friend relationships.

I have come up with the following joint suggestions.

Be there

For patients, figure out what works best for you: email, phone or visits. Find a way, through family, friends, blogs (my approach) or other social media, to let people know that you would welcome contact.

RobertGawles.JPGBy Holly Easley

Holly Easley began her cancer journey five years ago when she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). After two types of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, she says she loves life, is improving daily and enjoys blogging about the cancer experience at http://hollyeasley.wordpress.com/.

After a bone marrow biopsy, my doctor, Dr. Guillermo Garcia-Manero, told me it was time to see Dr. Chitra Hosing, my stem cell transplant doctor, and start the process.

Timing is important because, as Dr. Garcia-Manero explained to me, we don't want to do it too soon, but we also don't want to wait too long.

Finding a donor was the first priority, because it can be a lengthy process. This was very scary to me. Reality was setting in.  

The first place to look for a donor is with siblings. With each sibling you have a 25% chance of finding a match. A related match is considered the best possible match, with the fewest complications.  

I have two sisters and a brother, which gave me a 75% chance of finding a perfect related match. My siblings were all together that Thanksgiving, so they were sent swab kits to complete and mail back.

By Katrina Burton, MD Anderson staff writer

LJones.JPGDo you think of health disparities as a problem for minorities and the poor? Society has readily associated health disparities with a certain group of people, but it has a much bigger target -- everyone.

"Any circumstance that serves as a barrier to receiving health care is considered a health disparity," says Lovell Jones, Ph.D., director of the Dorothy I. Height Center for Health Equity and Evaluation Research (CHEER) and distinguished teaching professor at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

After more than three decades of research focused on health disparities, Jones has determined that the issue has become more critical as the nation's demographics have changed.

Many factors serve as barriers to individuals receiving sufficient health care.

Living in an area that doesn't have adequate health care facilities will cause health disparities. People who lack knowledge about particular diseases are a product of this growing issue. Not having health care insurance reduces a person's access to health care services, and cultural lifestyles can also lead to health disparities.

"Even the economy plays a role in health disparities," Jones says. "Not being able to afford expensive copays for preventive services will cause individuals to only see a doctor when they become ill. This ideology can put people at risk for letting health care issues go undertreated and serious illnesses -- including cancer -- are discovered in the later stages when they are difficult to treat."

Educating people about health risks and remedies

Education plays a big role in eliminating health disparities. If people aren't properly educated on the different risk factors for developing a disease, or on the appropriate interventions available to reduce their risk, there is no self-awareness and individual responsibility in place.

Carolinemisdiagnosis.jpgBy Caroline Kimrey

Caroline Kimrey is a wife and mom to a young son. After a few tumors were discovered on a CT scan, she had major surgery on Feb. 23, 2012. Pathologists needed almost a week to diagnose her cancer, even taking the tissue to an "unusual tumors" conference.

Finally, when she was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, she traveled to MD Anderson, prepared for (almost) anything. What she was not prepared for was to learn that she had been misdiagnosed.


She continues to be an MD Anderson patient, awaiting treatment for myxiod sarcoma. She chooses to blog at http://mesomama.wordpress.com/ for others who might be going through a similar experience.

One week after my debulking, my oncologist was finally able to tell me what kind of cancer I had. Unfortunately, that was all he could tell me. 

By Morgan Henry, Department of Social Work

When a child is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family is affected. Understandably, parents and caregivers tend to focus on the pediatric patient while their other siblings may be unintentionally overlooked. 

Siblings and their interactions contribute to the family's overall function and it's important to consider their needs throughout the cancer experience. 

Challenges siblings face

Siblings of pediatric patients can experience a range of intense emotions including, but not limited to:

  • Feelings of burden as they assume greater responsibilities and chores at home
  • Conflict about having their own needs
  • Fear of upsetting parents with worries related to cancer
  • Feelings of isolation/exclusion
  • Loss of companionship with their sibling, the pediatric patient
These feelings can be complicated by the constant changes and disruptions families face when a child is diagnosed with cancer. Often siblings feel they receive less attention and have fewer interactions with their parents during the cancer journey. 

By Erica Quiroz, MD Anderson Staff Writer

BeverlyGor.jpgBeverly Gor, Ed.D., is committed to bringing awareness to the health needs of Asian-Americans and Pacific-Islanders (AAPI), a commonly overlooked population in Houston.

Through Children And Neighbors Defeat Obesity (CAN DO Houston) and the Asian-American Health Coalition (AAHC), Gor is passionate about educating and improving the health of this vast group of people.

Awareness will be at the forefront of the Biennial Symposium on Minorities, the Medically Underserved and Health Equity, June 26-July 1 at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel.

The symposium will feature the 10th annual summer workshop, "Disparities in America: Working Towards Social Justice."

Gor says the symposium will give AAPI health and cancer issues national attention and bring awareness to the specific needs of AAPIs in Houston.

"Asian-Americans are a very diverse community," Gor says. "Although they are normally thought to be the same, they are culturally and linguistically different, which complicates addressing the disparities in this population."

FrancoDeMonte.jpgHearing that you or someone you love has been diagnosed with a brain tumor is life-changing news. What should you do now?  

Franco DeMonte, M.D.
, professor in MD Anderson's Department of Neurosurgery and specialist at the Brain and Spine Center, helps many people along their journey from diagnosis to survivorship. Here, he offers guidance for patients and caregivers.

Step back

While it's natural to feel frightened, disoriented and confused, it's important to stay calm and empower yourself. Patients often feel better once they take a few steps back, process the news and begin to research options.

Do your research
In your battle with a brain tumor, information is ammunition. Established websites, such as the American Brain Tumor Association and the American Cancer Society, can tell you what you need to know.

By Shalin Shah, M.D. and John Papadopoulos, M.D. MD Anderson Regional Care Centers in Sugar Land and Katy

Bluecuretweetup.jpgThere has been a great deal of discussion in the news, at medical meetings, within advocacy groups and among men for some time now about the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test for prostate cancer screening. No doubt this has sparked questions for men who want to do everything they can to monitor their health and stay on track with their cancer screening program.

MD Anderson recommends that men talk to their physicians about their risks for the disease or any symptoms they may be experiencing. Age, race and family history are factors that contribute to a man's risk and they should drive the conversation about whether a PSA test may be beneficial. Make sure your doctor takes the time to explain all aspects of screening.

So how do I know if I have prostate cancer?

grilledveggies.jpgPlanning a summer barbecue? Before you fire up, beware.

Convincing research shows that many meats traditionally served at barbecues may increase your risk for colorectal cancer. And, even some 'safer' meats can expose you to cancer-causing agents if they're cooked improperly.

But don't cancel your barbecue plans just yet. We've listed some of our top tips to give your next grilling event a healthy makeover.

Following these tips may help ensure you continue to enjoy grilling for many summers to come.

cancernursecancercaregiver_Nanny.jpgBy April Thomas

April began working at MD Anderson as a new graduate nurse in May 2004 in the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. She remained there for seven years, worked six months in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit and now is in the Gastrointestinal/Colorectal Clinic

Where do I begin? 

I think I will start with here and now, and then work my way backward.

Today is my grandmother, Nanny's, second day in the hospital. She was admitted with pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbation.

This year has been such a roller coaster ride. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer eight months ago, I had no clue what this meant for our little family.

Nanny was too sick for chemo, and because of the size of the cancer and her missing left lower lobe from her previous lung cancer, surgery was not an option. 

Proton therapy was the recommendation and she had 37 treatments. She was treated once per day, five days a week, for seven weeks and two days. 

Nanny battled lung cancer in her left lower lobe 22 years ago and won. She remained cancer free until a new primary cancer decided to take over her right middle and upper lobes.

During the work-up phase, the bronchoscopy (a test to view the airways and diagnose lung disease) was postponed twice. Once for an elevated heart rate, a second time for a severe nose bleed that was seen as a risk for compromising her airway during the procedure. Third time's a charm, right?

Marcysuterinepost.jpgBy Marcy Kurtz

Most importantly, I'm a daughter, sister, aunt and dependable friend to many. I practice law as a vocation and yoga as an avocation. I'm deeply committed to helping people, as a lawyer and as a yoga instructor. I'm a two-time cancer survivor, beating breast cancer diagnosed in October 2005 and uterine cancer diagnosed in August 2010. I'm just another ordinary person living an ordinary life, one day at a time.

Admit it. The headline for this post made you cringe a little, didn't it? Who really wants to say that word? Uterus is a six-letter word that has the same stigma as a four-letter swear word. None of us readily admit to using it and we try hard not to say it out loud -- at least not in public.

It took us (the general American population) more than 20 years to get comfortable saying aloud the word breast, another six-letter word.

While we remain silent and fearful of uttering the names of such a sexually charged pair of body parts, too many women, and men, died from a disease that today many can live with because we finally found our voices.  

Release the stigma

Our societal release of the stigma around saying the word breast allowed people to raise much-needed awareness about early detection and even more needed money to develop life-saving treatments. 

testicularcansurvivorsweek.jpgBy Lindsey Garner, MD Anderson Staff Writer

This post is part of our Survivorship Week series, June 2-9.

"I was ignorant on the subject. I didn't even know you could get cancer there," says Brent Irby of his testicular cancer diagnosis in 2000 at 21 years old.

Unbeknown to many, testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men between ages 20 and 34. The good news is that if it is caught early, the cure rate is more than 95%.

On the fast track
Irby noticed the first sign of his testicular cancer through self-examination.

When he complained of pain in his testicle, his primary care doctor gave him a prescription for antibiotics, standard treatment for a probable infection.

By Marisa Mir, program coordinator, Anderson Network

This post is part of our Survivorship Week series, June 2-9.

MarisaMir09_edit.jpg"As a survivor, is it tough to work here and be constantly reminded that your cancer could come back?"

This is a question I've been asked a few times and, honestly, never know how to answer. For the sake of this post, I'd say the answer is yes, and no.

It's not that I never think about a recurrence. What cancer survivor doesn't? I just try not to let those thoughts consume me. If I did, it would be debilitating and I would never leave the house. I know this to be true because it's what actually happened.

Eight years ago, when I rang the bell that signified freedom from the toxic assault that is chemotherapy and radiation, I cautiously celebrated. Cautiously because I did have fear then -- fear of recurrence and uncertainty.

MeganNEDsurvivorsweek.jpgBy Megan Silianoff

Megan Silianoff is a 30-year- old writer/blogger living in Houston. When she was 28, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and most recently has undergone an excisional biopsy of her breast. After four surgeries in two years, she is in complete remission. For more about Megan, check out her blog Greetings from Texas.

This post is part of our Survivorship Week series, June 2-9.


At the conclusion of my most recent CT scan, my doctor sat across from me and happily told me I had "no evidence of disease." It was news that millions of cancer patients dream of hearing. Yet for some reason, I didn't feel the overwhelming satisfaction you'd imagine.  

I was happy, sure. But I didn't pop any champagne nor did I high-five anyone on my way out of the hospital. (Though I did buy myself a Snickers bar and tip the valet guy an extra dollar.)

I love that phrase, though, "no evidence of disease," and have given it a lot of thought since my doctor used it. I've decided it's just not true.

Celebrationsingerssurvivorweek.jpgBy Angela Rankin

Angela Rankin is a three-time primary cancer survivor, who attributes her positive attitude and "fighting" stamina to her faith, family and friends. She says the excellent care received at MD Anderson gave her "healing confidence."

She continues to fight as she also deals with Parkinson's disease and severe back problems. She's been an active member of MD Anderson's Celebration Singers, a singing group made up of cancer survivors and caregivers, and has no doubt that music heals.


This post is part of our Survivorship Week series, June 2-9.

The Celebration Singers celebrate life through music and learning about one another.

We celebrate the opportunities when we get to sing for other survivors and caregivers.  

The excitement is high when we perform for others and I hope we both entertain and convey how music helps in the healing process.

EMbraincancersurvivor.jpgBy Elaine Moore

This post is part of our Survivorship Week series, June 2-9.

I've never had difficulty making decisions.

In September 2000, when I was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor, I knew that I had to get to MD Anderson right away.

I grew up in Houston and knew of MD Anderson's stellar reputation for cancer treatment. Without hesitation, I told my local doctors that I needed to be transferred there as soon as possible.

They agreed, and quickly processed my post-emergency surgery CT scans and MRI results so I could be admitted to MD Anderson's Brain and Spine Center.

Fixing it
My cancer journey began with the worst headache I could imagine. Within two days, I was undergoing an emergency craniotomy. The prognosis was not at all hopeful but, ever the optimist, I wasn't able to process that news.  

I only knew that I needed to "fix" it, with help from my family and my contacts in the medical community.

Cancersurvivorsweek.jpgThis post is part of our Survivorship Week series, June 2-9.

I'm a survivor, he's a survivor and she's a survivor, too.

MD Anderson will transform itself into Survivorship Central June 2-9, all in observance of National Survivorship Day. We'll have an entire week of events and activities.

I'll be there, too, celebrating my own survivorship. On June 2, I will be three years, two months and one day out from my diagnosis of brain cancer. When someone tells you that you have an oligodendroglioma, believe me, every day counts. So, yes, I'll be celebrating.

The week kicks off with a loud vroommmmm when the Riders for the Cure, MD Anderson's motorcycle riders group, holds its annual Ride for Life on Saturday, June 2. Funds raised from this event support educational programs for survivors and their families at MD Anderson's Anderson Network Survivorship Conference held each September.

If you're at MD Anderson or its regional care centers in the Bay Area, Sugar Land, Katy and The Woodlands during Survivorship Week, you'll see shades of the survivorship green and purple all over the place ― balloon sculptures, banners, buttons and even candy will wear these theme colors.

Activities and educational sessions

All week long, there will be numerous activities commemorating survivors. Free massages are scheduled at various locations around the institution, and those who are feeling crafty will enjoy origami, collage and stamping sessions in The Aquarium.

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