November 2012 Archives

By Nicho Bourque

I guess it's unusual to see a patient doing cartwheels down a hallway at MD Anderson. But after seeing my scans, which indicated that the treatment I'd received for metastatic melanoma was starting to work, it seemed like the right thing to do.

That was three years ago.

Today, I feel the same way because my tests show no signs of cancer activity.

Becoming famous, thanks to a clinical trial

I remember how excited I was on a post-treatment visit to my oncologist, Nicholas Papadopoulos, M.D., when I saw that the tumors in my lungs were shrinking. That's when I did cartwheels.

Later, I learned that I was rather famous in the Melanoma Medical Oncology Department for the entertainment I provided, which was apparently a first.

But maybe it wasn't too unexpected, as I'd already scored a big first by then. I was the first MD Anderson clinical trial patient to receive a new form of adoptive T-cell therapy, called T-cell therapy with dendritic cells, on January 30, 2009.

mastectomy_hysterectomy_breast_reconstruction.JPGBy Brandie Sellers

Brandie Sellers teaches yoga, meditation, nutrition and cooking. She paints, writes, runs and plays with her children. She is a
divorcee and two-time breast cancer survivor who's undergone a double mastectomy.

Brandie is crazy about her three children, and is blessed with a slew of sister friends who pick her up when she's down, keep her honest with herself when she's full of it, and make her laugh until she cries. Follow her at

Several years ago I began to wonder if we are our bodies. I learned to meditate and realized that I could observe myself, as if from the outside. I realized that who I am is not my body. Who I am is the soul that inhabits this body.  

Then, when I was diagnosed with cancer last year, the doctor said that I should have a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy if I tested positive for the BRCA gene.

I left the appointment devastated over the loss of body parts and shocked at the direct, stark mention of removing them. It was as if they are unwanted extras instead of parts that contribute to my womanhood. 

How to build your legacy and make memories that last.JPGBy April Greene and Wendy Griffith

With the holiday season upon us, there is no better opportunity to work on creating your legacy.

For many cancer patients, this can be a helpful way to cope with the cancer experience.

Creating your legacy isn't about death and dying, though. It's about life and living. It's about making connections and sharing precious moments with the special people in your life.

Legacy work is the act of putting the things you want your loved ones to remember about you or learn from you on paper or into a project or activity.

No matter what holiday you celebrate, the time you spend with loved ones and the memories that you make together will be a part of your legacy. They will live on for years and may even create traditions that will be carried on by future generations.

How to create memories
Wondering how your current holiday activities are contributing to your legacy? Or need some inspiration for creating some new traditions? Here are some ideas.

juggling_complex_emotions_in_my_lymphoma_cancer_journey.JPGBy Andrew Griffith

Andrew Griffith has mantle cell lymphoma and has had both an autologous (from his own cells) and an allogeneic (from a donor) stem cell transplant in November 2009 and August 2011, respectively. He lives in Canada and is married with two young adult children. He blogs at, has published "Living with Cancer: A Journey," and can be followed on Twitter @lymphomajourney.

We are often pulled in different, opposing directions, and take time to find the balance between acceptance and anger, surrender and control, individual and group, being and thinking, living and dying. How we find balance and what that balance is influences our attitude.

Yesterday I talked about two of the conflicts I came back to most often during my cancer journey - acceptance / anger and individual / group. Here are three more conflicts that I've struggled with.

Surrender / control
My cancer experience has pushed me to find a balance between surrender and control. While much of the cancer literature uses words like 'fight,' 'combat' and 'cure,' I found myself more inclined to surrender to the fact that I was no longer in control.

Balancing acceptance and anger in my cancer journey.JPGBy Andrew Griffith

Andrew Griffith has mantle cell lymphoma and has had both an autologous (from his own cells) and an allogeneic (from a donor) stem cell transplant in November 2009 and August 2011, respectively. He lives in Canada and is married with two young adult children. He blogs at, has published "Living with Cancer: A Journey," and can be followed on Twitter @lymphomajourney.

We are often pulled in different, opposing directions, and take time to find the balance between acceptance and anger, surrender and control, individual and group, being and thinking, living and dying. How we find balance and what that balance is influences our attitude.

Throughout my journey, I was struck by a number of differences or contradictions as I reflected on my reactions and the reactions of those around me. Looking at my reactions in terms opposites or contrasts gave me a better sense of where I was and how my state of mind evolved over time.

Why not me?

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why not me.JPGBy Sharmila Vaidya

On the afternoon of May 1, I was lying on the couch mindlessly watching TV after a long day at school. Suddenly, the loud ring of the phone made me sit up. That was the most difficult phone call I've ever answered.

I can still hear the doctor's crisp and clear voice saying that my cyst was malignant and that I had breast cancer.

I just sat there numb with no sensation in my body. I have no recollection of calling my husband at work.

I was still in a state of trance when my husband walked in the door about an hour later. We sat there holding each other in shock, not knowing what to say.

So many thoughts crossed my mind. How were my kids going to take the news? I was paranoid that they were now at a much higher risk of getting cancer. And, my husband has always been a tower of strength and support. I could not bear to see him so sad and heartbroken.

Searching for answers
The first thing I did was read as much information as I could find on cancer research. I scoured the internet and bought books, reading everything I could find. It was as if I was desperately trying to find a cure.

How do you say thank you?

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cervical_cancer_patient_how_do_you_say_thank_you.JPGBy Linda Ryan

I recently took my 99-year-old grandmother to dinner with my friend Barbara. Barbara is the friend who went to Texas with me for treatment every other visit so my husband could stay home and maintain some normalcy for our two boys.  

When Barbara was saying goodbye to Nana, Nana got tearful and said, "Thank you. We tried hard to find a way to thank you and your friends for what you did for Linda."

Of course, Barbara and I both fought back tears. When Nana said "we," she was talking about my parents and herself.

I've thought about this quite a bit over the past year: How do you say thank you to people who've given so much of themselves for you and your family? 

Young proton therapy patients channel their inner mad scientist.JPGFizzling beakers, gooey bars of soap and lots of smiles were just a few of the scenes at a recent celebration at MD Anderson's Proton Therapy Center.

Each week, the Proton Center hosts a patient information meeting called "Beam News" where physicians, nurses and other medical experts discuss the latest topics in proton therapy. Patients, former patients, family members and people from the community all attend. This time, however, an idea was hatched to try something new with special support from Proton Pals, an outreach group of former patients who received proton therapy at MD Anderson.

"We decided an event for our young patients would be beneficial," says Kelly Wagner, a child life specialist. "Because our staff shares a passion for science, we devised a mad scientist costume party, which would be entertaining and educational at the same time."

madsci.JPGLab transformation
For two hours, a large group of children and their families entered a makeshift laboratory filled with colorful streamers, balloons and a variety of exciting experiments. They were greeted by radiation therapists, nurses, and other staff who underwent a transformation of their own to look the part of mad scientists.

One of the experiments, called the "invisible hand," was especially a hit. A latex glove was attached to a long clear tube filled with gas. Once the gas rose to the top, the glove began inflating automatically to a wide array of smiles. The patients also created "cloud goo," a mixture of shaving cream and corn starch.

120723picnik.JPGAfter a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective. Read more posts in this series

I didn't think much about being a caregiver until I wasn't one anymore. It isn't something in which you test the waters. You are simply thrust into the situation as I was almost eight years ago.

Family and support groups can ease the abrupt transition, says Djuana Fomby, a social work counselor at MD Anderson. Fomby facilitates a caregivers' only support group every Tuesday, 12:30-1:30 p.m., at the Rotary House in the patient guest relations room on the MD Anderson campus.

Care4Caregivers is an opportunity for those supporting cancer patients to speak openly and honestly about their experiences. Fomby says the needs of a caregiver differ based on the stage of their loved one's cancer experience.

Master the system

In the first six months of diagnosis, the caregiver is in a state of shock.

"While they want information, they're overwhelmed," Fomby says. "Their feelings are fragile and their anxiety level is high-pitched. They don't have an understanding of what being a caregiver is going to mean. They're thinking strictly, 'Save my loved one's life.'"

Once someone has been a caregiver for three or more years, Fomby says, "They're calmer. They come to the realization the cancer will be there, the financial challenges will be there. They settle in to a new normal."

celebrating_caregiver_5_tips_to_help_manage_the_caregiving_role.JPGBy Stephen Collazo, social work counselor

National Family Caregivers Month is here, and I want to start by thanking all of the caregivers reading this for your help in Making Cancer History. Without the numerous hours of care and support you give your loved ones -- our patients -- it would be much more difficult for MD Anderson to provide the quality of care that we do.

Caregivers of cancer patients may face several challenges while caring for a loved one.

Emotional distress and learning to cope with the patient's cancer is the most commonly identified stressor for caregivers. Not only are the actual tasks of providing care taxing, but having to see the person you truly care for suffer can make caregiving even more challenging. 

Helpful strategies for the caregiver
While your job can be difficult, caregivers may find the following strategies helpful throughout their loved one's cancer experience.

quit_smoking_how_to_curb_the_urge.JPGQuitting smoking isn't easy. But it's one of the best decisions you can make for your health. Giving up tobacco helps lower the risk for cancer, stroke, and heart and lung disease. In fact, people who stop smoking before age 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years by 50%.

That's why MD Anderson encourages smokers to make a plan to quit as part of the Great American Smokeout on Thursday, Nov. 15. By quitting -- even for just one day -- you'll be taking an important step toward a healthier life.

Curb smoking urges with nicotine replacement therapy
So, what's the best way to quit? For many people, nicotine replacement therapy options like gum, lozenges and the patch can help curb your urges and help you wean off tobacco for good. These products deliver controlled doses of nicotine to an individual without the harmful chemicals that are in tobacco products.

Whether you've been smoking for 30 years or 30 days, your body has developed a dependence on nicotine. So quitting will result in some degree of nicotine withdrawal. This often causes smokers to give up trying to quit, but there are many options to help manage nicotine withdrawal and quit successfully.

caregiver putting on a brave face.JPGBy Gasper Mir

Gasper Mir met his wife, Marisa, more than two decades ago at The University of Texas, Austin. Two  years after they married, she  was diagnosed with colon cancer. With Gasper by her side, Marisa has been cancer free for nine years. Gasper hopes his story will encourage and inspire fellow caregivers.

This post is part of our Caregiver Week series, November 12-16.

Being a caregiver for a loved one is the most difficult, emotionally draining, frustrating, but enriching, experience.

For me, there was never a choice. My wife was diagnosed with cancer and so I became her caregiver. It was what she needed and I knew that to get through it, I would have to swallow my fears and anxieties about what was to come. I had to be as strong as could be for her.

Tough to remain positive

In those first few months after her diagnosis, it was tough to remain positive as her body went through the painful rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. It was heart wrenching to watch her face the prospect of losing her battle, and to know that I could not assure her of a happy ending.

So I did what I had to do. I was by her side as she went through her treatments and doctors visits, remaining positive and supportive as we made life changing decisions, sometimes in the blink of an eye, hoping they were the right ones.

maninpinkone.JPGOliver Bogler, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Academic Affairs and professor of neurosurgery research at MD Anderson. He was diagnosed with male breast cancer in Sept. 2012. Five years earlier, his wife, Irene Newsham, Ph.D., was diagnosed with breast cancer. This is the first post in an ongoing series.

When my wife, Irene Newsham, Ph.D., and I moved to Houston almost eight years ago to work at
MD Anderson, we had no idea how important a role it would play in our lives.

Of course, we realized it would be an important career move for us to join this top cancer center, and we jumped at the chance to join its brain tumor center research group. We also realized that close connections between the labs and the clinics, and the tremendous sense of mission and cooperation, make MD Anderson a special place to work.

But we had no idea that we would both be patients here as well, and experience that other, deeper, connection to the place and, more importantly, to the people that make MD Anderson what it is.

By Carol Dimmett, chaplain, Department of Chaplaincy and Pastoral Education

champlaindimmett.jpgAnyone who has been a caregiver for any amount of time probably knows what the term PTSD means.  

For those who don't, it stands for post-traumatic stress disorder and it can happen to people who are caregivers for an extended period of time.  

They may hear the slogan, "Don't just stand there, do something," over and over in their heads.  

That's partly because being a caregiver, there's always something to be done.  

In honor of Caregiver Week, I suggest another slogan for you. (OK, it isn't a slogan; I saw it on a bumper sticker.)  

"Don't just do something, stand there."

Take time for yourself

I like that one so much. How many people take time for themselves?  

How many times have people said to you, 'How is _____ doing?' Has anyone asked how you are doing? When was the last time you heard, 'I'm coming over to sit with _____ so you can go out to dinner?"

Tipsforcaregivers_GN.jpgBy Genie Alice Causey

Nate Causey of Tupelo, Miss., was treated for TMJ and tension headaches before doctors found the real cause. At age 34, he was diagnosed with a central neurocytoma on May 7, 2010. Unexpected and rare complications left him with several disabilities, but with hard work and determination, Nate is beating the odds every day.

His wife, Genie Alice, wants to share her experiences as a caregiver to encourage others no matter where they are in the process of fighting cancer.

This post is part of our Caregiver Week series, November 12-16.

Caregivers --despite our differences --it seems there's one thing we all have in common: guilt.

Well-meaning friends, doctors and strangers always tell us the same things, "Take care of yourself."

It sounds like a great idea, right? But it's not always practical or realistic.

We feel guilty. Everyone tells us that doing these things will make us better caregivers. But whenever we take time for ourselves, we feel guilty that we aren't doing something else.

Early on in my caregiving journey lots of people told me how important it was for me to take a night off and go spend time with my friends. The problem was, when I actually did that I was so consumed with guilt and worry that it made my stress levels worse.

As a fellow caregiver, I want to share some simple, real ways that helped me learn what it means to "take care of myself." I'm no expert, but I've been there, and this is what has worked for me.

diary_of_a_stem_cell_transplant.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 loves life, is improving daily and enjoys blogging about her cancer experience at

Read the first post in this series, "Countdown to my stem cell transplant"

May 24: Transplant Day
Transplant Day. We got the news that my transplant would be at 12:30 p.m.  

At noon the nurses started medicating me with steroids and Benadryl. Then Roy Jones, M.D., Ph.D., my new doctor on rotation, brought the stem cells into my room and held them up so I could see and take a picture.

The bag looked like watered down blood.

The nurse told me to look closely at the tubing and I would see the little flecks of stem cells moving through. It was amazing that you could actually see the cells. 

my_stem_cell_transplant_myelodysplastic_syndrome_mds.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 loves life, is improving daily and enjoys blogging about her cancer experience at

My stem cell transplant was on May 24, 2011. The following is a diary of my hospital stay during the six days prior to my transplant.  

May 18: six days until my transplant
I checked in for my first full day in the hospital. One chemotherapy treatment is over.

I went to bed at 1 a.m. after my blood work. Three hours later, I woke up to start the anti-nausea medicine in preparation for my next round of chemo at 4:30 a.m.

They start chemo at that time because that's the time when cells are usually dividing and chemo is most effective. The infusion lasted several hours.

my_brain_tumor_meningioma_taught_me_to_see_lifes_blessings.JPGBy Halit Uster

In 2006, Halit Uster was diagnosed with the most common primary brain tumor, a meningioma. Thorough research led him to MD Anderson and he underwent surgery. Today, he is tumor-free and credits his expert neurosurgeon and the professional, friendly staff at MD Anderson. He advises others to not take life for granted.

In December 2006, I scheduled a simple visit to my ophthalmologist to check a potential non-vision-related concern. As it is the usual practice, my vision was tested before the doctor's exam. The vision test showed blurriness in my left eye. The ophthalmologist thought it was normal vision deterioration and, since I was not even aware of it, said there was not much to be concerned about.

A month later, I became concerned with the vision issues in my left eye and decided to get a second opinion. The optometrist said she could do nothing to correct the blurred vision and referred me to another ophthalmologist. He performed a few tests, then said I needed to get an MRI.

Well, that did it. The ophthalmologist said I had a pituitary tumor that was pressing on my optic nerve. This also explained my headaches, which I had attributed to my busy work schedule.

ovarian_cancer_patients_spirit_lives_on1.JPGBy Darlene Gonzalez

In July 2008, I received a life-changing phone call from my best friend, my mother.

She had been diagnosed with an advanced stage of ovarian cancer. Doctors said she had no hope of recovery.

My mother was a strong, resilient woman, and she wasn't ready to give up. She decided to visit MD Anderson for a second opinion.

In early August, Pedro T. Ramirez, M.D., and a team of specialists from MD Anderson met with my mother. By the next day, they had laid out a course of action and, to our great surprise, surgery was possible.

The procedure was scheduled right away. What eventually followed were two major surgeries, 45 days in the ICU and numerous moments when we thought the fight was lost.

Lasting impression

As an only child, seeing my mother battle for her life was one of the most difficult experiences I've ever faced.

help_patients_in_need_and_donate_blood.JPGThe MD Anderson Blood Bank is grateful that it has an adequate supply of blood and platelets for our patients for the coming few days.

Not all blood banks are so fortunate.

Blood banks in the Northeast that provide blood products to cancer centers and hospitals affected by Hurricane Sandy are running low. Because power is spotty, transportation difficult and residents focused on rebuilding, local blood drives have been cancelled and it could be some time before they gear up again.

The MD Anderson Blood Bank has not been called upon to assist with blood supplies elsewhere yet. But if our blood bank can maintain its own reserve for the coming months, it will not need to locate blood products from other regions which may be running short.

Honor someone you love
If you would like to honor a patient or donate in thanksgiving for a survivor, please donate blood or platelets through MD Anderson's Blood Bank. Or if you prefer, you can wait a few weeks --  closer to the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays--  and give. 

the_young_and_the_widowed_finding_life_in_a_support_group.JPGBy Lyndie Charnock

Mike and Lyndie Charnock met, fell in love, and got married within a couple of years. Shortly after their 2 year wedding anniversary, Mike was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. During his battle, Mike quickly became known to family, friends and his team of doctors as 'El Toro'. He fought cancer head on, strong like a bull.  

Mike lost his battle with cancer in February of 2012. As Lyndie faces her new role as widow, she's learned that she's not alone, having found compassion and new friendships in her new normal with others who've lost their husbands and wives.

"I miss you when something really good happens, because you're the one I want to share it with. I miss you when something is troubling me, because you're the only one who understands me so well.  I miss you when I laugh and cry, because I know that you're the one who makes my laughter grow and my tears disappear. I miss you all the time, but I miss you the most when I lay awake at night and think of all the wonderful times we spent with each other for those were some of the best and most memorable times of my life." -- Author Unknown

It was raining. I hate driving in the rain. Something inside of me pushed me to go and move forward, to accept my "new normal."

I could hear the theme song to Cheers playing through my head: "Where Everybody Knows Your Name." Well, in this area, no one knew me or my name.  

I felt alone, though I had many family and friends for support. I yearned to find others who might understand the journey I've completed.  

I had recently discovered a new group to Houston -- a widow and widowers group, The Young and the Widowed, for "our" age in this "club." 

Protecting your eyes during cancer treatment.JPGBy Johnny Rigg

MD Anderson is one of a few cancer centers with a strong and growing ophthalmology section. We talked to Stella Kim, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery, about eye problems that may occur as the result of cancer treatment.

How often do patients undergoing cancer treatment encounter problems with their vision?
Many people experience ocular symptoms during cancer treatment. Such symptoms may include ocular irritation, dryness, redness, pain, tearing, sensitivity to light and blurred vision.

Fortunately, most eye problems during cancer treatment are relatively minor and can be managed. There are, however, very serious problems that may affect vision irreversibly. These include severe infection, inflammation, bleeding, or swelling in or around the eye.

Unfortunately, symptoms alone cannot predict what types of ocular problems the patient may be experiencing, so it's good to have an evaluation by an ophthalmologist.

How to navigate cancer as a young adult_melanoma patient JPG.JPGBy Brian Rose

Brian Rose has battled melanoma for nearly three years. He has experienced multiple rounds of biochemotherapy, surgeries and radiation therapy, and participated in clinical trials. With a positive perspective and the support of his family and friends, Brian continues his journey one day at a time. He blogs about his cancer experience at  

A cancer diagnosis at any age presents a seemingly impossible amount of instant adversity. As a young adult, however, a cancer diagnosis can open a floodgate of scenarios that can quickly back you into what feels like a very lonely corner of the universe.

When I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma at age 32, I was overwhelmed with fear. I don't think it's possible for a person to hear the words "you have cancer" and not immediately begin to consider the inevitable reality that affects all living creatures, but for you, it could come sooner than expected. On top of that, I had no health insurance and was limited financially.


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