January 2013 Archives

patient and volunteer John Biondi.JPGBy John Biondi

"Hmmm, looks like there's some stuff there," my doctor said as he read the report of my chest x-ray.

That "stuff," I figured, might be residue from too many years of heavy smoking. After smoking for years, I'd expected that one day an x-ray would reveal cancer.

As it turned out, the "stuff" wasn't cancer. But, that same x-ray and others confirmed a nodule in my right thyroid.

Turning to MD Anderson
My doctor suggested that I see a surgeon.

The first call I made was to MD Anderson, where I had participated in a research study of former smokers. I wanted to see if I could get information about that research study, thinking the findings would be both informative and helpful in planning my treatment.

To my surprise and delight, I was on record as a patient and even had my own medical record number (MRN).

brain cancer Glioblastoma Multiforme debbie.JPGBy Debbie Billings

My battle with brain cancer started in the fall of 2008.

I was at work when I began having some nasal problems and trouble completing routine tasks. I made an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor to have my sinuses checked. The doctor found some congestion and ordered a scan of my nasal passage, which needed to be cleaned out. 

In September 2008, Hurricane Ike hit our hometown and everything, including my health, was put on hold.

In the following months, though, my co­workers became concerned about my behavior and contacted my husband. I had recently had a hysterectomy, so I thought my hormones were messed up. I went to the doctor and was given a different prescription.
A deadly brain tumor diagnosis  
On January 21, 2009, my husband and I were leaving our house to go to work when I told him that I couldn't drive. I had forgotten how. He took me to the emergency room. 

How to quit smoking mary dewberry_final.JPGBy Mary Dewberry

In January 1989, MD Anderson went smoke-free. It happened the same month and year that I started working here.

Now when people see me, they think of the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout (GASO) and saying no to tobacco. That's because for 23 years, I've helped coordinate GASO's logistics and direct people to resources here at MD Anderson during the event, which is held every November.

But for me, GASO isn't about trying to quit for one day or one week. It's about providing resources to help year-round.

Here are a few of the resources I recommend to those trying to quit.

Brandie sellers cancer treatment breast cancer diagnosis tree.JPGBy Brandie Sellers

Before I even had a confirmed breast cancer diagnosis, one of my first thoughts was "I don't have time for cancer." I had a full-time job and am a single mom with children who were nine, six and three at the time. I had an active social life. I was teaching two yoga classes per week. How could I fit cancer treatment into my life?  

I was completely unprepared for my life to be consumed by cancer. But consume my life it did: Scans, chemotherapy, blood work, doctor visits, radiation, six surgeries and six recoveries. One week I had 14 appointments.

It all takes so much time, planning,  rearranging, and  peeling away what's not important.

Cancer treatment forces simplicity
When you are faced with a cancer treatment schedule, you get pretty clear about what's important and what's not.  

Children? Yes. Dishes? No.

That person who wants to have coffee with you, but you know they will drain your energy? No, thank you. 

t-cell_therapy_helped_melanoma_patient.JPGBy Cherie Rood

My 20-year-old son Charles (Trey) Rood III is a junior at the University of Georgia. He was diagnosed with stage III melanoma when he was just 15 years old.

Trey waged many battles in his long war against cancer until two years ago when, as a stage IV melanoma patient, he was treated with adoptive T-cell therapy, or TIL therapy, at MD Anderson.

Soon after, we saw signs of improvement suggesting that Trey was finally winning the fight. Today he is enjoying his busy life at college just like any other student.

Finding an effective melanoma treatment
Trey's war started in 2007, when he found the lump behind his right ear that led to his initial diagnosis. He had a lymph node dissection in Atlanta in surgery that revealed two more lymph nodes with metastatic melanoma.

Over the next year, Trey received interferon therapy. But in June 2009, a scan showed tumors in his left lung. That meant the melanoma had progressed to stage IV.

getting_married_after_cancer_leukemia_patient_deals_with_guilt.JPGBy Justin Ozuna

Before proposing to Katie, I couldn't stop thinking about how the proposal would align with my cancer diagnosis and the uncertainty of my future.

Katie and I had been dating long-distance for two-and-a-half years while she attended graduate school in San Antonio.

Even though I was about to start a clinical trial for chronic myeloid leukemia, I was excited to ask Katie to marry me.

On January 14, 2012, amidst tears of joy, I clumsily stumbled through the reading of a letter that I had written. On the final page was the question, "Will you marry me?"

She said yes.

uterine cancer survivor marcy kurtz lifting.JPGBy Marcy Kurtz

You know that sensation between when you step off of firm ground that's high up  and when you land again? The space in time where you have no footing and you don't know where you'll land or even if you'll land in one piece? 

One minute you have the rock-solid, dependable earth beneath you, holding you up, and the next you are just free-falling. I have that feeling. 

I'm 20 months out from my last chemotherapy treatment and 15 months from my last medical procedure related to my battle with uterine cancer

Struggling to call myself a survivor
I'm a cancer survivor

However, the fact that I still count my survivorship time in months instead of years is a big part of why I feel like I'm falling off a cliff. I'm far enough away from my grueling treatment regimen and side effects that I feel completely healthy and totally healed -- at least physically. 

Cleeland1.jpgBy Sandi Stromberg, MD Anderson Staff Writer

Good news for non-small cell lung cancer patients undergoing a combination of chemotherapy and radiation: If you're experiencing side effects that challenge your ability to function well in your daily life, help may be on the way.

"Patients often start off with very few or no symptoms at diagnosis," says Charles Cleeland, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Symptom Research.

"Then from chemotherapy and radiation, they develop a constellation of symptoms that we've learned are associated with very aggressive cancer therapy. These can make treatment very difficult to tolerate and negatively impact the person's ability to function during and immediately after therapy -- and even into long-term, overall survival."

For lung cancer patients, these side effects can include fatigue, pain, disturbed sleep, lack of appetite and drowsiness. Researchers want to find treatments to reduce these symptoms and understand the biological reasons they occur.

Studying how to alleviate side effects
"We know that drugs like minocycline, an antibiotic used to treat certain infections, and armodafinil, a stimulant-like drug used to treat specific sleep disorders, have the potential to help our lung cancer patients," says Zhongxing Liao, M.D., professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology.

Jeanette and andy sebesta.JPGJeanette Sebesta has tackled many roles during a celebrated career as a regional actress in Houston. But recent real-life experience has been the most challenging.

Sebesta's son, Father Andy Sebesta, was diagnosed with an anaplastic astrocytoma  in 2004. The cancer was partially removed during surgery to prevent seizures.

After several rounds of radiation, Andy, a Holy Cross priest at The University of Notre Dame, was in remission for six years until he was diagnosed with glioblastoma  in 2010.

After a second surgery, Andy received low-dose chemotherapy due to platelet problems. His oncologist, W.K. Yung, M.D., professor and chair in the Department of Neuro-Oncology, said radiation wasn't an option since he'd had so much after the first surgery.

"Physically, he was fine," Sebesta says. "Even though he had a brain tumor, he never had any problems with his mental capacity. Although he had cancer, he was never handicapped by it."

cancer experience Finding similarities in our unique experiences.JPGBy Sarah Hines

"We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."

-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., let's reflect on how the ideas of uniqueness and unity expressed in this quote apply to our lives and hold special meaning for those affected by cancer. 

By understanding how your cancer experience is both unique to your own situation and similar to the experience shared by others, there's an opportunity to find both meaning and hope.

Understanding the uniqueness of cancer
The effect of cancer and treatment on the body
Not every type of cancer affects every person in the same way. The same is true for how different patients respond to different treatments and their side effects. Age, gender, physical activity, diet and environmental factors all differ from patient to patient.

Cervical cancer What you need to know.JPGJanuary is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. I recently spoke with Lois M. Ramondetta, M.D., professor in
MD Anderson's Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine, to find out what we need to know about cervical cancer.

Here's what she had to say.

What causes cervical cancer?

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease, is passed on through genital contact. The American Cancer Society says about 80% of men and women who have had sex will be exposed to HPV at some point.

Usually, the body's immune system gets rid of the virus, and most people never know they have it. However, those who don't get cervical cancer screening or receive inadequate treatment are more likely to develop cervical cancer.   

After my stem cell transplant Becoming myself again.JPGBy Cristina Rodriguez

In the first month-and-a-half after my stem cell transplant, I was in my own little world. I was Bubble Girl. 

I was stuck in the hospital most of the time, with my visitors having to wear masks and gloves and cover gowns, but that's not exactly what I mean. 

In the weeks leading up to my stem cell transplant, I kept asking my doctor if I'd be treated like a 'bubble girl' during my hospital stay. Little did I know, I would end up turning myself into just that.

Everyone could see me, but they couldn't really see me. What truly was a joyous occasion -- my stem cell transplant -- took a frightening toll on my physical health, spirit and emotions. 

I stopped writing. I stopped talking. I stopped eating. I spent entire days in bed. I wouldn't leave my hospital room.

Support groups A cancer patients best friend and best weapon.JPGBy Mike Snyder

I don't remember when I first heard of support groups, but I do remember the first time someone suggested I join one. 

It was spring of 2005 and my orthopedic oncologist had just told me my left leg would need to be amputated because bone cancer had returned. The tumors were so big that cutting them out would not leave enough bone intact for an artificial joint to work. I needed to lose my leg in order to save my life.

While discussing the technicalities of cutting my leg off, healing and getting fitted for a prosthetic, the doctor suggested joining a support group.

"This is going to be hard on you, Mike," she said. "You're going to feel a sense of loss, like someone died. Please consider it."

I said I would, but I promptly pushed aside the idea. I had handled the emotional baggage of all my other operations. What made this one different? I was conveniently forgetting the year I'd spent in counseling during my mid-twenties as I came to terms with growing up disabled and the years of feeling like I'd been cast aside.

improve your diet and take Healthy Bites.JPGWant to jumpstart your healthy new year? MD Anderson's Healthy Bites challenge may be perfect for you.

"Healthy Bites helps adults take small steps toward adopting a healthier diet," says Mary Ellen Herndon, a wellness dietitian at MD Anderson and the Healthy Bites challenge coach. "Each month, we encourage participants to focus on one diet change that can potentially reduce their risk for cancer."

Want to learn more? Below, Herndon answers frequently-asked questions about nutrition, dieting and Healthy Bites.

What's the best diet for preventing cancer?

Truthfully, I don't recommend a specific diet. Instead, I tell people to focus on a lifestyle and mindset change.

male breast cancer what you should know.JPGBreast cancer is typically thought of as a woman's disease. But men develop the disease, too. And, due to a lack of awareness about male breast cancer, it's often found at later stages, when the disease is more difficult to treat.

We recently discussed male breast cancer with Sharon Giordano, M.D., chair of Health Services Research and associate professor of Breast Medical Oncology at MD Anderson. Dr. Giordano sees more male breast cancer patients than any other doctor in the world.

Here's what she had to say.

How common is male breast cancer?  

Male breast cancer represents approximately 1% of all cases of breast cancer. In the United States, 2,190 new cases of male breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in 2012, as compared to 229,060 cases in women.  

What causes male breast cancer?  

The cause of male breast cancer is not known. Risk factors include a family history of breast cancer, prior radiation exposure and Klinefelter syndrome, which is the presence of an extra X chromosome in a man.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations also are a risk factor for breast cancer in men. In particular, BRCA2 mutations are linked to male breast cancer. Men with a BRCA2 mutation may have close to a 10% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. 

cancer treatment lymphoma patient support.JPGThis is a continuation of the tips from yesterday's post on tips to help navigate your cancer treatment.

The health care system is large and complex, with its own culture and way of doing things. Understanding how it works, and specifically how your medical team and the system work for you, makes things easier.

Here are some additional points that have helped me navigate the system.

It helps to have a partner
There is an incredible amount of information to take in during a medical appointment, and the specialists in particular are pressed for time. Having a second pair of ears at appointments is helpful in understanding and recalling all the key points.

In addition, when things get rough with side-effects, it's critical to have a partner who can communicate with the doctor on call.

lymphoma patient cancer journey cancer treatment.jpgBy Andrew Griffith

The health care system is large and complex, with its own culture and way of doing things. Understanding how it works, and specifically how your medical team and the system work for you, makes things easier.

Working for the government has given me insight into the various approval levels, procedures and strategies sometimes required to move things along during my cancer treatment.

The following points helped me navigate the system.

my male breast cancer gave me a new appreciation for MD Anderson.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 second post in an ongoing series.

I'm about halfway through chemotherapy for my male breast cancer. These past few weeks have opened up an entirely new view for me on MD Anderson.

As I mentioned in my last post, my wife and I relocated to Houston to work at MD Anderson about eight years ago. And, although I got a view when Irene was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2007, it's not until I became a patient here that I really got to see how amazing this place is.

Wearing both an employee badge and a patient bracelet gives me a dual perspective. Moving through familiar areas of the institution on my way to a medical appointment, it's easy to forget that I'm not going to a meeting or seminar, but am instead about to change roles entirely by becoming a patient.

Listen to a group of teenagers talk and their conversation could cover a gamut of topics from video games and movies to relationships and school. However, at MD Anderson  Children's Cancer Hospital, a group of teenagers talk with one goal in mind - to improve the experience for other young patients facing childhood cancer.

This past fall, 18 cancer patients and survivors formed imPACT (Patient Advisory Council for Teens), partnering with hospital staff in the decision-making process and working together on patient care projects.

"Teens want to leave their mark in this world. They want to give back, to help others who come to the Children's Cancer Hospital. Their involvement in this council will allow them to do that," says Lauren Shinn, a child life specialist and imPACT co-facilitator with art teacher Mindy LeBoeuf.

No more oversized hospital gowns

In their first meeting, council members brainstormed a list of things that could help patients cope with their hospital stay.

Family gets screened for esophageal cancer.JPGMom knows best.

The Muth family knows this statement all too well. Their mother, Ann Jennings, asked for only one thing to ring in her 90th birthday, for her four children to have endoscopies at MD Anderson.

Yes, you read that right.

So, when the four children traveled to Houston from all over the country for their mother's birthday party, they gave her the gift she wanted.

"If it wasn't for Dr. Manoop Bhutani making it easy, we might have never done it," says daughter, Karen Jones, the second oldest, of the four Muth children. "Dr. Bhutani said he could scope us all in the morning and we could leave on a plane that afternoon."

Why the unusual birthday request?

Karen Jones has a history of esophageal cancer, and pancreatic cancer runs in the family.

Having cancer and young children A mothers advice By Sandra Bishnoi.JPGBy Sandra Bishnoi

Sandra Bishnoi was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer with bone metastasis in January 2011; she currently has no evidence of disease. Prior to her diagnosis, she was a young mother, chemistry professor and scientist living in Chicago. She is now in pursuit of a new identity with the aid of her two young children, her supportive husband and the Houston scientific community. 

I was recently asked how breast cancer has affected me as a mother. My kids were 1 and 4 when I was diagnosed. I'm sure that I've gone through many of the same stages that anyone diagnosed with cancer has, including denial, anger, grief and acceptance.

Have those stages been worse for me as a mother than for someone without children?
I can't say. All I know is that having young children has provided a necessary distraction at some points during my treatment, but also added to my confusion and grief.

At the early stages of my diagnosis, I was sure that death would come quickly. I cried a lot when I thought about my baby girl growing up without a mother and the fact that my kids wouldn't remember me or have me there to remind them of how much they are loved. 

The thought of these things causes me to tear up even now. 

Cervical cancer patients experience with cervix cancer.JPGBy Linda Ryan

Linda Ryan thought she had checked cancer off her list. Having just run her first marathon, it was hard to imagine that her cervical cancer had returned after seven years. Cancer chose the wrong woman. She was ready to battle cancer for the third time with health, laughter and friendship. Follow Linda Ryan at

I recently went for my second appointment to work on the lymphedema in my leg. It's not that bad, but apparently, if I don't deal with it, the fluid will harden and that won't be pleasant.  

I went to MD Anderson in Orlando for the treatment. I live in Florida, and my doctors at MD Anderson in Houston suggested I go there because it's closer to home and they have  a therapist who specializes in oncology lymphedema. 

On my first visit, I realized that I'd been putting off my lymphedema. If I think about why, the simplest reason is that I'm tired of dealing with my medical issues.   


Connect on social media

Sign In