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May 2013 Archives

Surviviorship_balloons.JPGDid you know that MD Anderson claims more than 200,000 cancer survivors? That doesn't count their caregivers, who by the American Cancer Society's definition, are survivors themselves.

This is a club that none of us ever wanted to join, but we've all found ourselves as members. And, come June 1-8, we'll all be celebrated for this membership as part of Survivorship Week at MD Anderson. There will be all kinds of fun and interesting activities.

If you're in the neighborhood, we hope you'll stop by.

A week full of survivorship events
The week kicks off with an event sponsored by Riders for the Cure. Join these MD Anderson employees and supporters at their annual Ride for Life, which begins at Stubbs Harley-Davidson on Telephone Road. It's a great way to get revved up for the rest of the week.

Beginning on Monday, June 2, you'll feel the survivor spirit when you walk in the doors at MD Anderson.

Lizee with guitar.JPG"Hold on. I can feel it getting better. Hold on. Be strong. Can you feel it getting better?"

These words of hope and encouragement are found in the chorus of the song "Hold On," written by Greg Lizee, Ph.D., associate professor in MD Anderson's Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology.

In 2002, a close friend of Lizee's was going through a tough time. Lizee wanted to cheer his friend up, so he decided to write an inspiring song.

"I was playing this very optimistic-sounding chord progression and thought about putting uplifting lyrics to it," says Lizee. "In just a few days I'd written 'Hold On.'"

The birth of Lizee's songwriting hobby
Lizee first became interested in music at age eight when he began piano lessons. Four years later, he picked up his first guitar.

"I've been in many bands over the years, but just as a hobby," says Lizee. He's been writing songs for about 15 years.

Lizee isn't shy to admit that his first songs weren't that great. "'Hold On' was the first song I wrote that I could actually listen to again and again," he says.

Leila Little with patient.JPGBy Lindsay Lewis, MD Anderson Staff Writer

Brad Smith and Leila Little are speech pathologists. But their job is a little different than you might think.

As certified lymphedema therapists in the Speech Pathology and Audiology section of Head and Neck Surgery, Smith and Little work with patients to reduce head and neck lymphedema -- swelling that can be a complication of their cancer treatments.

"It may or may not look like a lot of swelling, but it's substantial to our patients," says Smith, who explains that lymphedema in the region of the head and neck can be devastating to a patient's self-image and affect basic functions such as speaking, swallowing, vision or breathing.

Personalized head and neck lymphedema treatment for cancer patients
The Speech Pathology and Audiology section comprises a team of clinicians who manage a range of treatment complications, many of which affect the head and neck region, and work to restore patients' quality of life.

Terry with Dr alvarez.JPGBy Terry Arnold

I used to wonder if doctors at large hospitals like MD Anderson remembered their patients. Did they ever look up from the charts, tests and body exams to see the face of the person they were treating? 

Since patients come from all over the world, it seemed like it would be an impersonal relationship. That is, until I met Ricardo H. Alvarez, M.D.

Waiting to meet my new triple-negative inflammatory breast cancer doctor

When I met Dr. Alvarez, I'd already been through a year of cancer treatment for triple-negative inflammatory breast cancer (IBC).

You'd have thought I would've been nervous, but I wasn't. I felt confident.

I'd been happy with my prior oncologist, but he'd moved across the country. So, I had to make a change, too.

Family Grilling cw.JPGBy Amber Presely, MD Anderson Staff Writer

While you spend time with friends and family and celebrate our veterans this Memorial Day weekend, don't take a vacation from making healthy choices. A healthy lifestyle can help reduce your chances of developing cancer, so make the holiday a healthy one.

Use these tips to stay healthy and help prevent cancer.

1. Fit in activity
Taking a family road trip for the long holiday weekend? Try to schedule time in your trip to stop for a bike ride or brisk walk. Or get the family moving by kicking around a soccer ball or throwing a Frisbee for a few minutes.

Sitting less and adding more activity to your day can help lower your risks for many cancers. Get more tips to make your road trip healthy.

Janice and Ken Rightmer husband CW.JPGBy Janice Rightmer

In early February 2011, my husband Ken was living his life normally. 

Just a few weeks later, things took a turn for the worst when he had to go to the ER with jaundice.

Blood work, x-rays and an ultrasound revealed a tumor in his pancreas. His cells were biopsied and tested positive for pancreatic cancer.

Our local doctor said he had three to six months to live.

Getting a second opinion at MD Anderson
Having grown up in Houston, we'd heard about MD Anderson. Unable to accept the first doctor's prognosis, we gave them a call.

When I lived in Houston 50 years ago, it seemed like there wasn't much hope when people went to MD Anderson.

But as we discovered during our first visit, it's now a place where hope abounds.

girl with questions CW.JPGFor many patients and caregivers, the first visit to MD Anderson can be a little daunting. On top of wondering how you and your family will cope with your cancer diagnosis, you may be worried about everything from parking to what to expect on your first day to whether your doctor will listen to your concerns.

Below, several patients and caregivers share what they wish they'd known before coming to MD Anderson. We hope their insight helps make your first visit a little easier.

You're not just a number
"I wish I'd known that it's pretty easy to be a patient here. I was intimidated by stories of how going to MD Anderson is like being in a cattle call. I did not find that to be true at all. It's peaceful and, even though the size can be intimidating, there are so many forms of help and ways to ease the visit. MD Anderson is a place where I feel listened to and not like a number."
-- Brandie Sellers, two-time breast cancer survivor

brandie sellers mastectomy photo.JPGBy Brandie Sellers

The recent revelation that Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy and reconstruction to minimize her chances of developing breast cancer is causing quite a buzz. It seems that the public is supportive of this measure. 

As for me, I don't know what I would do in her shoes.

I don't have the BRCA gene for breast cancer.  Yet I got diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. 

Ninety percent of women who receive a breast cancer diagnosis do not have the BRCA gene.

For me, because I had a huge tumor, it wasn't a question of whether I would have mastectomies or not. It was a foregone conclusion. 

Some women who receive a breast cancer diagnosis are candidates for a lumpectomy, and that can have the same positive outcomes in many cases as having a mastectomy does.

Mary blood donation picture CW.JPGI wasn't always able to give blood.

The first time I tried -- as a high school senior, many years ago -- I fainted after the finger stick to check my iron level.

I didn't even make it to the donor chair.

This was at a blood drive attended by many friends and classmates. I got teased about it and was embarrassed. For many years, I thought I wouldn't ever be able to give blood.

But one of my heroes, my Uncle Paul, was -- is -- a regular blood donor. He's quietly given nearly 28 gallons to his local blood bank.

It's a habit for him.

So, in 2000, nearly 25 years after my dismal high school experience, I noticed an MD Anderson blood drive being held at the University of Houston.

I decided to try again. And I succeeded.

Since then, giving blood has been a regular thing for me. I try to donate every quarter.

CCH FB CW1.JPGA stay in the hospital is not on most kids' top 10 list, but it's often a necessity for young cancer patients. Now, the redesigned and expanded MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital will make stays easier on children.

When the idea to expand the Children's Cancer Hospital and centralize its services became a reality, pediatric caregivers on the Family Advisory Council began to work hand-in-hand with the architects and hospital staff. They considered everything from pod names to colors to furniture to floor layout.

The result: mood lighting, plasma TV screens and a basketball goal down the hall ‒ which may sound like a child's idea of a dream vacation. The good news is that the innovative treatment that is synonymous with cancer care at MD Anderson is still part of the plan.

Each patient still receives care from a multidisciplinary team of specialists who partner with families to provide the best comprehensive care for their children. Patients will be able to receive infusion therapy and inpatient services, including intermediate and intensive care, all on the same floor - a first among area children's hospitals.

lindaRyan_patient_0006 cervical cancer.JPGBy Linda Ryan

Because I had recurring cervical cancer after seven years, my two experiences with cervical cancer were very different. 

When I was originally diagnosed with cervical cancer, I was 36 years old and the mom of two boys. We weren't sure our family was complete and were hoping for another baby when I was told that I would need a hysterectomy.

I was devastated by the news. I mourned the loss of another baby, but as the years passed I couldn't imagine our family any different than it was. 

The importance of screenings and early detection
My initial cervical cancer was found during a routine pap test.  It was stage 0, and the treatment was a hysterectomy. No radiation or chemotherapy. 

Recovering from the surgery wasn't easy, but I was able to drive again after two weeks and back on my feet fairly quickly. 

When people asked what they could do for me, my answer was often, "Go to the doctor for your annual exam."

Gibbs living in the moment picture.JPGBy LeAnne Gibbs

Aside from the birth of our daughter, our life has been a flood of awful since my husband Francis was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Yet, under all this runs a strong current of beautiful moments, lessons and experiences.  


One of best lessons that we've gotten in the face of Francis' colon cancer diagnosis has been about living in the moment.

Starting hospice
On April 11, we met with an admissions specialist for hospice care. This was a big step because it felt like giving up. 

This was an equally difficult and simple decision to make.

Yackdale & Yackjaira CW 2.JPGBy Yackjaira Ruiz

Every year, I rack my brain with what I will get my mom for Mother's Day. This year I was thinking of a pair of earrings. If I ask her what she wants for Mother's Day, she would say "for you to be good."

That has been the answer she has given for Mother's Day, her birthday and Christmas for as long as I can remember. And yes, even at 26 years old, that's still her answer.

Three years ago, almost to the day, my mother, Yackdale (Jackie) Ruiz, was diagnosed with breast cancer. From that moment on, the meaning of Mother's Day changed for me.

The new meaning of Mother's Day
Before my mom's cancer diagnosis, I had always thought Mother's Day was all about her and showing her how much I loved her. In reality, Mother's Day is about me.

staci rcc bay area.JPGBy Staci Waites

It's no secret that cancer treatment can cause changes in your appearance. Experiencing those changes in front of middle school students, however, can be a challenge.

In addition to being a mother, wife, sister and daughter with cancer, I am also a middle school teacher. 

That means I had 400 students with ring-side seats to my journey through treatment. The teacher in me had to portray strength and stability, but the patient in me was vulnerable and scared.

Middle school students are at an age where they're aware of what cancer is. Some may have a family member who has been through cancer treatment. Some of their parents work in the medical field. Regardless of their own experience, "cancer" is a very scary word to kids at that age.

ovarian cancer patient AH.JPGBy Allyson Hendrickson

On our fourth wedding anniversary, I gave my husband the happy news that we were going to be parents. Our son, Cole, was born in January 2002, followed by two more boys, Cade in 2004 and Austin in 2005. I began to refer to the boys as my "little cowboys," and the name stuck.

The days when they were babies went by in a blur. I was exhausted, my house was a wreck, everything I touched was dirty or sticky or grubby -- and I loved my life. Each of my little cowboys could melt my heart with just one word: "Mommy."

In June 2007, when my sons were 5, 3, and 1½ years old, some unusual pain landed me in the ER. Several tests were inconclusive, but they raised enough suspicion that my ob/gyn thought it a good idea to do an exploratory surgery to check for ovarian cancer.  

The morning after the operation, the doctor said six words that changed my life: "I have bad news. It's cancer."

Anne Balson.JPGBy Anne Balson

"Nurses are angels in comfortable shoes."
-- Author Unknown

My appendix ruptured the summer after my freshman year in college. This was a big deal back in the fifties; I was in the hospital for over a week.

The nurses made a tremendous impression on me - all starched and serious with little caps, white stockings and squishy, spotless white oxfords.

Beginning in October 2011, I spent 15 months in outpatient cancer treatment at MD Anderson. The nurses, again, were extraordinary. But what a difference the decades have made.

Now there were smiles and colorful scrubs, and almost everyone was wearing Crocs and socks.

Deborah Thomas' mother.JPGI know it sounds really odd to say I'm glad my mom found out she has cancer, but in a strange kind of way I am. If my mother wasn't diagnosed and coming to MD Anderson, there is a good chance her other health issues would not have been discovered.

My mom went for her physicals every year and was told she was healthy. However, when she came to MD Anderson, doctors diagnosed another discernible issue besides her cancer - extreme hypertension.

Geriatrician fills in the gaps for seniors

So, Mom was sent to see Beatrice Edwards, M.D., a geriatrician here at MD Anderson. Mom thought she was just having her high blood pressure checked, but Dr. Edwards checked for every possible thing that could be a problem for a senior.

alvarez MD.JPGInflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is the most aggressive form of breast cancer. Symptoms for this rare type of breast cancer often include itching, dimpling of the skin of the breast, and a pink, red or dark-colored area of the breast. As a result, IBC is frequently misdiagnosed as a rash or infection.

Because IBC is very fast growing, it's crucial that IBC be treated as quickly as possible and by specialized experts.

MD Anderson established the world's first IBC clinic in 2007 to treat women who've been treated before as well as those who are newly diagnosed. MD Anderson's doctors see more IBC patients than any other center in the world.

Ricardo  H. Alvarez, M.D., is a breast medical oncologist in the Morgan Welch Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Program and Clinic.

Linda in Boston.JPGBy Linda Ryan

I'm working hard to get back to my pre-cancer fitness level. I've struggled to find motivation to run the way I did before and during chemotherapy treatment when my cervical cancer recurred.  

Oddly, I found my running rhythm during a weekend that was so tragic for our country and a city I love.   

Feeling grateful
It has been 17 days since I walked down Boylston Street past the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. I was on Boylston Street 10 minutes before the explosions that killed and left many people injured.  

I'm blessed and was blessed on April 15 to not have been injured that day. 

I can say with certainty I walked by the two men who committed the horrible crimes in Boston.

handprint smiling boy.JPGBy April Greene and Wendy Griffith, social work counselors

Mother's Day is a special day that we set aside to celebrate our mothers and honor the joys of motherhood. But for moms diagnosed with cancer, this day can be especially trying.

While you may feel grateful to spend this special day with your children and loved ones, you also may wonder how many more Mother's Days you have left.

Some moms even feel guilty on Mother's Day because it reminds them of the things they can no longer do for their family.

Rather than focusing on the difficult feelings, why not focus on celebrating the real meaning of Mother's Day by spending time with your family and making memories that you'll all cherish?

Making handprints: An easy way to make memories

Making a handprint with your loved ones is one great way to do this - even if you're experiencing mixed emotions and limitations from cancer or cancer treatment.

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