From patient to practitioner: a survivor's story

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120731Joel.JPGBy Claudia Giertz, MD Anderson Staff Writer

Deciding what field of work to pursue is a journey many believe begins in college. One man, however, began his in an MD Anderson clinic.

Joel Pequeno, now a radiation therapist at the Proton Therapy Center, was 21 years old when he received his diagnosis of medullary thyroid cancer. At the time, he was working in a call center and planned on returning to school to become a teacher.

"My sister's mother-in-law noticed a lump on my neck. I was in excellent health and felt great, so I didn't even notice it. Later on, another lump appeared a little higher and it just grew from there."

After the muscles in his neck became so swollen that there was a noticeable enlargement, he decided to visit the doctor. One 10-hour surgery and several radiation treatments later, Joel was in remission.

Newfound interest
Every three months, he returned to MD Anderson for follow-up appointments and it was during this time that he found his calling.

"The radiation therapist took me into the control room so I could see what they were doing," Pequeno says. "It seemed complicated, like they were just pushing buttons, but the equipment fascinated me."

With his newfound interest, Pequeno immediately began gathering information about the radiation therapy program offered at MD Anderson. He learned that the bachelor of science in radiation therapy program offers a two-year track with entry at the junior level once applicants have completed 42 hours of the required prerequisites.

He also found out that the program provides students with an education in advanced treatment modalities including adaptive, conformal, stereotactic and proton therapy. He was especially intrigued by the technology involved in proton therapy and its ability to treat complicated tumors. He knew this was the career for him.

After applying and being accepted into the MD Anderson program, Pequeno graduated in 2010 and began work at MD Anderson after completing the interview process.

"It felt like the natural thing to do," Pequeno says about working in the same institution where he was treated. "I love helping people and this is my way of giving back."

Nothing he'd rather do

Patient interaction is his favorite part of the job. Pequeno tries to keep in touch with his patients the same way his radiation therapists kept in touch with him.

"When you see a patient that you've treated who's doing well, that's the best part," he says.

Pequeno says his experience with cancer made him realize how strong he could be. He tells others going through treatment to be patient and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

"I don't want to say I was fortunate to get cancer, but now that I'm here, I love this job," he says. "There's nothing I would rather do."

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