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December 2012 Archives

Getting a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. But by staying informed, you can make your treatment experience more manageable.

Here is some of our most helpful advice from 2012.

Pablo Romero isn't shy about singing in public.

"I've sung everywhere from cafés to gas stations and bus stops," Romero says.
Now, he's adding MD Anderson to this list. 

The young opera singer has been entertaining crowds for the past 10 years. He's currently in Houston while his mother receives cancer treatment.

"I was accompanying my mother to one of her appointments, and I saw a choir singing," Romero says. "We stopped for a moment to listen and discovered it was the MD Anderson employee choir."

Right away, he knew he wanted to sing with them.

Yesterday, he got his chance.

Want to stay cancer-free? Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, along with regular exercise, can help.

This year, our experts offered advice for staying healthy.

A bittersweet anniversary

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Nanny radiation bell.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. 

December 19, 2011. That's the day that Nanny completed Proton Therapy treatment. But instead of hitting the gong in the Proton Therapy Center to symbolize the end of her lung cancer treatment, she wanted to ring the bell in the Radiation Treatment Center. Her late husband, JL Pennington, had donated it in 2001 after completing his prostate cancer treatment.

"J.L., can you hear me?" she shouted as the bell sounded off. She was accompanied by family and friends. She held hands with her radiation oncologist, Ritsuko Komaki, M.D., as she rang the bell. 

Who is a cancer survivor? The American Cancer Society defines a survivor "as any person with cancer from the time of diagnosis on."

Today we celebrate three of our bloggers who have taught us what it means to be a cancer survivor.

Gifts that give back Inspired by young cancer patients.JPGHolidays are the time for giving and, thanks to the Children's Art Project (CAP), giving that perfect present shouldn't be difficult this season. That's because year-round MD Anderson's pediatric cancer patients color, paint and sketch their own unique artwork, which is featured on a variety of gift items. 

The best part: sale proceeds go right back to fund important educational and recreational programs for children and their families. CAP has released its annual holiday collection, and there's no better way to show your support for kids with cancer than considering giving friends and loved ones a gift that truly makes a difference.

"This is a time of year to reflect and be thankful for all that we have," said Shannan Murray, CAP's executive director. "When I see the talents of these young patients reflected in their artwork and the wonderful opportunity we have to support them, it's reminds me of what's really important."

The latest and greatest

The "Santa Fluff" ornament, $8, is a newly released design that made its way into CAP's popular resin-based ornament collection. For years, CAP staff members have heard stories from customers about how they treasure decorating their trees with these special pieces.  They say it's a simple way of giving back and recognizing the achievements of those faced with difficult circumstances, especially around the holidays.

This year, some inspiring and selfless caregivers have shared their stories here on Cancerwise. They've taught us about love and perseverance, and showed us how they make a difference.

This year, some amazing patients have shared their stories with us. We're inspired by the strength, hope and insight they offer.

Here are three of the most memorable patient stories from 2012.

The guilt-free Goodwin Christmas

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GAIlxmasfinal.jpgI've been an MD Anderson patient for close to four years and, in spite of it all, I've continued with our annual Christmas explosion. There's never been anything left undone ― from gifts for all, to decorations everywhere, to special goodies in the kitchen. Here's a secret: it hasn't always been fun.

Two years ago, my son and his wife gave me one of the best gifts ever. I walked in the back door after our trek home from a Dallas Thanksgiving and discovered a note on our kitchen door: "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!"

That was news to me. But when I walked inside, I soon understood what the message meant.

The 12 large plastic tubs full of decorations that live in my attic were now in the laundry room. I walked into the living room and found the Christmas tree with the lights sparkling and all ready to go.

What a present! Still working through the fatigue of my cancer, I hadn't been certain how I would get everything ready for the holidays. Having that shining tree up gave me the motivation I needed and we had a Christmas to remember.

Now, once again, it's the most wonderful time of the year. My fatigue is much better, but my right hip is not. I've decided to give myself a present.

blood_donation_donate_blood_why_i_donate.JPGBy Alyssa Berkovitz

Several years ago, my mom was invited to speak at a cancer walk. I listened with admiration as she said, "Our ovarian cancer diagnosis and recurrences can serve as wake-up calls to examine our lives and legacies. How do we want to be remembered? What else do we seek to achieve?"

"It's no longer acceptable to put our lives on hold," she continued. "There's no time for excuses. Live your life with meaning, feeling grateful that you were given this gift of time."

In just four years, my mom had endured melanoma, breast cancer and three relapses of ovarian cancer.

To help prolong her remission, she made the incredibly brave decision to travel to Texas for a stem cell transplant at MD Anderson.

wendysbell.JPGWe see plenty of people in hospital gowns in the halls and clinics here at MD Anderson. But women in evening gowns? Almost never.

So, at least a few jaws dropped when Wendy Hunsaker and 12 of her closest female friends and relatives walked into our Radiation Treatment Center on a Monday afternoon, clad in evening gowns.

Wendy was here for her last round of radiation treatment for breast cancer. And, when it was over, she intended to celebrate by ringing the bell surrounded by friends and relatives.

But first, a wardrobe change: Wendy would trade in her hospital gown for a knee-length white beaded evening gown, a cashmere wrap and glittering gold heels that, as Wendy put it, "The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy would envy."

A guest list of "prayer warriors"
Wendy began planning her intimate black tie celebration soon after she started radiation treatment in October 2012. She'd been inspired by her sister-in-law, Linda, a two-time triple negative breast cancer survivor who'd stressed the importance of celebrating the end of her cancer treatment.

Wendy ordered gold glittered invitations instructing guests to wear "evening gown bling" and planned a seated dinner at her home to follow her bell ringing.

A father and a son

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Anas Younes_father and son.JPGOncologists thrive on prolonging life and decreasing human suffering. They have to be optimistic, without providing false hope. They also have to be honest when all treatments fail and clearly communicate a poor prognosis to patients and their families. Most of the time, the patient's overall medical condition and tumor status easily guide decisions to treat or not to treat. But sometimes even the most skilled oncologists find it difficult to predict the future. In these situations, decisions are made through candid discussions with the patient and the caregivers. The patient's final decision to request more therapy or to focus on comfort care is usually based not only on the medical status, but also on social and economic factors. Some patients also take into account the possible burden they may impose on their caregivers.

* * *

The patient was admitted to the hospital with rapidly progressing lymphoma. His lymphoma already relapsed before. As I visited him, I planned to discuss the prognosis and help him decide whether he wanted to try more therapy. 

little_miss_sunshine_how_kyssi_kicked_cancers_butt_usethisone.JPGKhyrstin Andrews -- better known as Kyssi -- has never met a stranger.

Whether she's waiting for an appointment or receiving treatment, this outgoing four-year-old is full of smiles and personality. Kyssi comforts and befriends everyone she meets, so much that some might call her a hometown celebrity. In fact, it's not unusual for one of her more than 30,000 Facebook followers -- most of them total strangers -- to recognize her around MD Anderson and go up to speak with her.

Kyssi, usually dressed in head-to-toe pink Hello Kitty, sunglasses on top of her head, loves posing for pictures. "She doesn't like to cover up her bald head," says her mother Marla. "Instead, she wears it proud."

"Her big bright smile is now her best accessory."

Kyssi's Wilms' Tumor diagnosis
But as her mom also will tell you, "Kyssi's journey hasn't always been joyful."

Kyssi was diagnosed with Wilms' Tumor, a rare kidney cancer that affects children, on May 1, 2012 -- her father's birthday. She'd had no symptoms until she began urinating blood.

healthier holiday dessert recipes.JPGWhether you're celebrating Hannukah, Christmas or Kwanzaa, no holiday celebration is complete without dessert.

Sure, holiday treats are usually loaded with fat, sugar and calories galore. But they don't have to be. 

Add a dash of health to your holiday treats by whipping up these dessert recipes from our new online cookbook.

Whole wheat snickerdoodles
We've trimmed fat and sugar from this popular cinnamon cookie without sacrificing flavor. Even better, our recipe replaces the usual white flour with whole wheat flour -- a good source of cancer-fighting dietary fiber.

Date truffles
Looking for a quick, elegant treat? With just six ingredients, these date truffles fit the bill.

And, here's some more good news: the dates are rich in disease-fighting antioxidants. Plus, the almonds and walnuts in this recipe deliver omega-3 fatty acids, cancer-fighting vitamin E, magnesium and fiber.

dysphagia_swallow_disorders_swallowing_problems.JPGBy Ed Steger

Ed Steger is a head and neck cancer survivor. He was diagnosed in 2005 and, after rough patches in 2006 and 2007, has been in remission. He is president of the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders and blogs about his cancer experience at www.hncancer.blogspot.com.

A hot dog at a football game. Ham and mashed potatoes at Christmas dinner. Popcorn at the movie theater.

These are experiences that a person with dysphagia may never again enjoy.

Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty with swallowing. It's not a disease; it's a disorder.

Our society revolves around food and meals. When you're diagnosed with dysphagia, life as you know it ceases to exist.

Dysphagia can cause depression, low self-esteem, lost wages, poor social performance and increased health risks. Working through the disorder's mental aspects can be as challenging as the physical limitations.

I know because I was diagnosed with severe dysphagia in 2007 after numerous life saving head and neck cancer treatments.

cancer_survivor_surprising_strength_survivorship_cancer_LS.JPGBy Lainie Jones

On December 12, 2011, two weeks prior to my 25th birthday, I got a present I never wished for: "You have breast cancer."

I'd heard the term cancer before -- after I'd had adrenal cancer as an 18-month-old.

But this time I was all grown up and about to start nursing school.

How my adult cancer journey began
One day I felt a lump on my breast, which led to a doctor's visit. That led to a mammogram and then a biopsy. I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

Within the blink of an eye, I had to change my focus from a career to saving my life. I felt like a hurricane had hit me.

There was an explosion of cancer terms thrown at me, followed by scans, tests, more tests, more scans and then a double mastectomy.

My whole world stopped and no longer made sense. I couldn't comprehend how, on the verge of becoming a nurse, I had become the patient.

non_hodgkins_lymphoma_cancer_whats_to_blame.jpgBy Cristina Rodriguez

Cristina Rodriguez is a 31-year-old non-Hodgkin lymphoma fighter. It's not all that she is, but it's all she's focused on at the moment. Cristina's blog is called lymphomamaniac.


When something bad happens to us, who or what is to blame? It seems like there should always be something that caused it, therefore providing a way to fix or at least come to terms with it. 

But, what if sometimes there's nobody to blame or no explanation? What then? These questions have been on my mind since this journey began. Apparently, I'm not the only one.

Facing my mother's guilt
Recently, my husband, mother and sister came up to Houston to visit with my father and I before I was admitted into the hospital for chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.

My mother and I went off into a guest bedroom at my uncle's house, where we were staying, to get my CVC, or central venous catheter, covered up so it wouldn't get wet when I showered. This wasn't as easy as we thought, and my mother was having a hard time covering it up. 

As we both started getting annoyed, she asked a question that alarmed me: "What did I do wrong?" I just stared at her because I knew what she meant. "Did I not breastfeed you long enough? I only did it for a week. Maybe I should've done it longer. I should've tried harder."

Cancer caregiver Do what you can do and that's all.JPGBy Katie Narvarte

Katie is a social worker and caregiver to her fiancé Justin, who has chronic myeloid leukemia. She is a social worker, living and working in Dallas, Texas. Their wedding date is set for next October.

Do what you can do and that's all you can do.

That's my mom's well-known mantra. The phrase used to drive me -- a Type-A control freak -- completely insane. I never understood why my sweet (and oh so persistent) mom, a two-time caregiver and intensive care unit nurse, always repeated this phrase to me.

I finally began to process her words this past January as I cared for my fiancé during his cancer drug trial, the darkest time in our lives.

eating_healthy_during_the_holidays.JPGBy Alicia Beltran

The holidays are upon us, and that means plenty of delicious temptations just begging to add calories to your diet. But you can keep yourself healthy and avoid post-holiday guilt by using these tips this holiday season.

Focus on portion size
Portion control can make a big difference in avoiding weight gain during the holidays and year-round. No matter what you're eating, be sure to eat small portions. This way, you get to taste everything without too much guilt. Try these tips:

  • Choose turkey over ham. And, instead of eating three slices of turkey, have just one.
  • Pause between bites, and stop when you are satisfied. Don't overeat. Instead, savor small amounts of each dish.
Plan ahead and balance your calories
  • If you know you have a dinner party that night, choose a healthy light breakfast like oatmeal or toast and a light lunch like a salad and half a sandwich.
  • In between meals, eat healthy snacks such as fruit or sliced vegetables.
  • Having a brunch celebration? Eat a light dinner, such as a salad.

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