July 2013 Archives

Deborah and Doris ThomasThe doctors at MD Anderson not only diagnosed my mother's stage III breast cancer. They also diagnosed a heart condition that may have become quite serious had it not been found early.

How swelling legs and feet helped identify a heart problem

In a previous Cancerwise post, I mentioned that my mom developed edema, a condition that caused her lower legs and feet to swell after her first Taxol chemotherapy treatment. This did subside, but we soon learned that once a side effect goes away, you shouldn't believe it's gone for good. The swelling came back a couple of weeks later with vengeance.

My mom's oncologist, Sharon Giordano, M.D., watched the edema closely. Taxol can cause swelling but Dr. Giordano said it's rarely this extreme. She and her pharmacist thought this might have to do with Mom's blood pressure medicine and referred Mom back to Edward Yeh, M.D., chair of Cardiology at MD Anderson.

The Department of Cardiology is uniquely equipped to handle patients with every kind of cardiovascular issue. Some patients without cancer even come here to get their heart problems treated.

Brandie Sellers

By Brandie Sellers

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, I didn't have many close friends who had been through any sort of cancer treatment

Most of my friends, like me, were between 35 and 45, and we are not the usual cancer demographic. The median age of breast cancer patients, for example, is 61.

Most of my friends had little experience with cancer and we all fumbled around for what to do and say to each other -- me as the patient and them as the caregivers. 

We learned and worked our way through it. 


Whether you're traveling one mile or 1,000 miles to get here, packing for your first visit to MD Anderson can be a little daunting. After all, you've got a million other things on your mind, and you're not sure exactly what to expect when you get here.

So, we asked several veteran cancer patients and caregivers what's on their must-bring list. We hope their answers -- shared below -- will help making packing for your first visit a little easier.

1.  Patience and calming distractions
A lot of patience. Families are under a lot of stress when they come to MD Anderson, but it's important to understand that you may have to wait a while before seeing the doctor or getting your scans. Bring a book or headphones or something that will help calm you during the wait. 
-- Sandra Bishnoi, breast cancer patient

fatigue and cancer

By Pamela Schlembach, M.D.

If you ask a patient who has just completed cancer treatment how he or she is feeling, very often the answer you'll get is, "Great!" Most patients are relieved to be through with their treatment and are ready to get on with their lives.

Dig a little deeper, though, and patients usually will confess that they're feeling a little tired.

Unfortunately, fatigue is a common side effect of both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Most patients will be tired at some point in their treatment and often for a few months after they're finished.

However, there are some things you can do to help minimize the effects of fatigue and give you more energy so you can get back to feeling like your old self as soon as possible. Here are some tips to help get your energy back.

couple embracing

By Sarah Hines and Rebecca Savoie, social work counselors

A cancer diagnosis is almost universally a life-changing event, with significant effects on patients, family and other loved ones.

Patients and caregivers affected by a brain tumor diagnosis often face a unique set of challenges because a brain tumor is often associated with the sudden onset of symptoms that have both physical and cognitive effects.

Brain tumor patients: Common challenges
Some common challenges faced by brain tumor patients include:
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, seizures, vision and hearing loss, weakness or inability to move arms and legs and difficulty moving around
  • Difficulty with language, both understanding and communicating  
  • Impaired reasoning, processing and decision-making capacity
  • Word-finding difficulty, memory concerns and attention deficits
  • Changes in personality and behavior (aggression, irritability, impulsivity or depressive symptoms)
  • Loneliness, loss, anticipating loss or anxiety about death
  • Role changes (from caregiver to the cared for, from breadwinner to disabled, from partner in relationship to dependent)
  • Knowing who and how much to tell about your disease and when 
  • Difficulty navigating the health care system and communicating with health care professionals

medullary thyroid cancer

By Lori Baker

Our researchers are waging war on every cancer, no matter how many -- or how few -- are impacted.

Take progressive, metastatic medullary thyroid cancer: Only tens to a few hundred Americans were diagnosed with it in 2012. Yet MD Anderson has a team dedicated to this cancer, and its research has resulted in a new treatment that stalls tumor progression and even shrinks tumors in some patients.

"Rare cancers get intense focus here, so they aren't rare to us," says Steven Sherman, M.D., chair of Endocrine Neoplasia and Hormonal Disorders. "Each year, we treat between 175 and 350 medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) patients, many of whom have progressive, metastatic disease."

Although thyroid cancers tend to be slow growing, those with progressive, metastatic MTC face different odds. This often fatal disease had no approved treatments until 2011. A second therapy was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November 2012.

MD Anderson played a key role in the development of both treatments.

Sonia Byrd

By Sonia Byrd

One year ago, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I had a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery two months later. My breast cancer diagnosis was a big shock, but once I got over that, I was ready to go on the offensive.

I realized that while I couldn't control having cancer, I could certainly control my journey. I decided I was going to be positive, and I truly believe that mindset played a significant role in my recovery.

For a lot of women diagnosed with breast cancer -- whether they get reconstruction or not -- their womanhood is challenged, and they wonder if they'll ever be able to get back to their former selves. I admit that I asked that of myself, and a year later, I can say with conviction: "Life does not end with a cancer diagnosis." 

The experience that cemented this mantra for me is one I'll never forget.

How preparing for a bodybuilding contest gave me support and confidence
A co-worker had recently participated in a bodybuilding fitness contest and, on several occasions in early 2013, encouraged me to compete as well. I politely declined.

During follow-up visits with my physicians, though, they routinely mentioned how well I looked. In response, I joked that I had been urged to enter this competition. I was pretty shocked when they said, "You should totally do it." Hearing that planted a seed, and I actually started to consider it. I spoke to my family and friends, who also encouraged me to enter, and I ultimately decided to go for it.

I admit that I originally thought of the competition as little more than a bikini contest, but once I started training, I realized it is much more than that. 

sunscreen.jpgFor many of us, summertime means time outdoors by the pool or at the beach. But while you probably already know to use sunscreen to help protect your family from skin cancer, including melanoma, it turns out that many of us aren't using sunscreen correctly.

Here are nine things about sunscreen and skin cancer that may surprise you.

1. Your family probably isn't using enough sunscreen.
The biggest trouble people get into with sunscreen is not using enough and missing spots. You should be covering every part of your body exposed to the sun with sunscreen, including your ears, back of your neck and toes.

The average adult should use one ounce of sunscreen per application. That means the bottle should be gone within a few applications.

A family of four should use one bottle of sunscreen on vacation in two days. But most only use 1.5 bottles of sunscreen per year. 

Michael Conway

By John-Henry Perera

At 21, the last thing on Michael Conway's mind was cancer. But that changed when doctors diagnosed the healthy, athletic college student with medulloblastoma, a type of brain tumor that commonly affects children.

Twenty years later, Conway can't help but break a smile when talking about his cancer diagnosis. Now an employee at MD Anderson, where he monitors the use of donations to ensure they meet with the wishes of the donors and state policies, Conway says death didn't seem like an option at the time.

"The first thing I asked my doctor was, 'Am I going to lose my hair'?" he says. "I didn't really realize the severity of my brain tumor."

Living in the moment during cancer treatment
As it turned out, Conway's youth, energy and upbeat attitude proved to be his best coping mechanisms as he underwent seven weeks of radiation therapy. He looked upon his cancer journey as going through the motions, taking each day as it went.

Looking back, he describes the ordeal as similar to a bad breakup. "Day after day, I felt terrible, but I knew each day I got through, I was one day closer to being back to having my normal life again," Conway says. "It was rough, but eventually, one day I woke up and realized, 'Hey, it's over. I got through it.'"

His goal each day was -- and still is -- to make today the day he's going to live. "You should focus on what you need to get done today and live tomorrow when it gets here," Conway says.

Marcy Kurtz

By Marcy Kurtz

Perhaps you've heard the expression "too much time to do nothing, not enough time to do anything." It is one of my favorites. 

I am not fond of being idle. On the other hand, I do not like being rushed when I have a task to accomplish. Not having enough time to do anything and having too much time to do nothing leaves me in a state of complete frustration because I am in limbo. When I am in limbo, I feel out of control. Feeling out of control makes me feel powerless.  

Being a cancer survivor sometimes creates these same feelings of frustration, lack of control and powerlessness.

A longer reprieve from scans and scanxiety after uterine cancer 
I completed nine months of treatment for uterine cancer at the end of March 2011. I have remained under the watchful eye of my team at MD Anderson since then. 

Because of the aggressive nature of my uterine cancer and the particulars of my uterine cancer diagnosis, my team determined I should have quarterly PET scans and follow-up doctor visits. In March 2013, my team and I determined that I could "graduate" to tests every four months. I was relieved to get a longer reprieve between scans and the stress associated with getting tested for any evidence of cancer.  

Importantly, I also interpreted that one-month extension to be a sign that my team believed my long term prognosis was improving. I finally did not need to be as closely monitored. I had passed my critical two-year mark with no evidence of recurrence. I was ecstatic.  

Gerry and Sharon Neumann

By Gerard Neumann


Three years ago, I started having chest pains. But I wouldn't go to the doctor for fear of being admitted and missing an upcoming trip to my grandson's baptism.


When the pain got so bad that I was screaming during the night, my wife finally forced me to see a doctor.


Initially, the doctor said it was pneumonia. But my high white blood cell count and enlarged spleen led him to change his diagnosis: leukemia.


He sent my wife and me to the local hospital, where another look at my lung showed fluid in my right pleural sack.


Three weeks later, I got a definitive diagnosis -- acute myeloid leukemia (AML). I told my doctor I wanted to go to MD Anderson. 

My clinical trial for acute myeloid leukemia

Arriving at MD Anderson felt like the first day of school. The hospital was huge, and I started wondering if I had made the right choice.


My doctor, Farhad Ravandi-Kashani, M.D., helped ease my mind. He confirmed my AML diagnosis and started me on a clinical trial in late July 2010.


The trial required me to spend 30 days in a protective environment, where I received a chemotherapy treatment of Clofarabine, Idarubicin and Cytarabine.


No one except medical professionals was allowed in the room. I could only see visitors through a window and talk to them by phone.

active man

One in two men will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. And, one in six men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in American men, just behind lung cancer.

So, what can men do to protect themselves from cancer? We recently spoke with John Papadopoulos, M.D., assistant professor of Urology. He works at the MD Anderson Regional Care Center in Katy.

Here's what Dr. Papadopoulos had to say.

What are some easy tips for men to help men prevent cancer?

There are a lot of things men can do to protect themselves from cancer:

  • Avoid tobacco - even celebratory cigars - and limit alcohol to no more than two drinks per day.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and stay physically active each day.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Make fruits and vegetables the biggest part of every meal and go easy on the meat. Limit the amount of red meat you eat to 18 oz. week and avoid processed meats like hot dogs and pepperoni. 
  • Wear sunscreen and practice sun safety. 
  • See a doctor regularly and get the screening exams you need. Many men avoid seeing a doctor because they're afraid, but if you do have a chronic disease like cancer, diabetes or heart disease, the earlier we catch it, the easier it will be to treat. 

Keep in mind that doing these things doesn't guarantee you won't get cancer. But living a healthy lifestyle can put you in fighting shape if you do develop cancer.

READ: Men: Health for your age

What cancer screening exams do men need? And, when should most men start screening?

Most men need both a prostate exam (digital rectal exam and PSA test) and a colonoscopy starting at age 50. This is the appropriate age for screening if you don't have a family history (father, son, brother) of prostate or colon cancer and you're not African American, which can make you more likely to develop these cancers.

Linda Ryan

By Linda Ryan

Why is it so difficult for many of us -- especially women -- to receive a compliment? 

For those of us who've undergone cancer treatment and endured changes in our appearance, accepting a compliment can be especially challenging. 

After all, it seems to be most people's natural reflex to put themselves down when paid a compliment. Think of how many times you have heard someone or been that someone who did not receive a compliment well.

Learning about compliments from another mother
I was recently paid a compliment about my sons. They were volunteering at Vacation Bible School at our church. My older son, Matthew, was a crew leader while my younger son, Ethan, was his assistant.  

One day, the woman responsible for the volunteers told me how well Matthew was doing as a crew leader and that she didn't have to worry about him. She said that he was mature and doing a wonderful job and that she thought of him as an adult in the group.   

I responded by saying thank you and then said, "Because I'm his mother, I'm not sure that I am objective, but I think he is great, too."

A short while later, she said, "I really like how you received that compliment."

Deborah Thomas and Doris ThomasIt was scary when my mom started Taxol chemotherapy treatment. We'd heard horror stories about the possible side effects of chemotherapy.

We weren't sure exactly what to expect, but we thought our lives would become very different.

Minimal side effects from early chemotherapy treatments
Mom and I were relieved when she made it through two chemotherapy treatments with almost no side effects.

Her legs swelled a bit after the first treatment, but the swelling soon subsided and hasn't been a problem since then.

Reliving our painful past with neutropenia
My heart sank when I got a call from my mom when she went in for her third treatment. She was in tears and said her white blood cell count was too low.

Cathy Eng

Each year, fewer than 1,000 Americans are diagnosed with appendix cancer, also called appendiceal cancer.

The appendix is located in your digestive system, near where your large intestine and small intestine meet. 

Unfortunately, because appendix cancer is so rare, there's still a lot we don't know about its causes and prevention. Appendix cancer can also be hard to detect. A routine preventive colonoscopy to detect colon cancer may incidentally detect appendiceal cancer, but not always.

We recently spoke with Cathy Eng, M.D., associate professor of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology, to learn more about appendix cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options.

Here's what she had to say.

Jackie Parker.jpgBy Jackie Parker

I can relate to people who are dealing with cancer because I'm a survivor myself.

My children were 4 and 6 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993. Now some 20 years later, I help patients, caregivers and librarians as a weekly volunteer in The Learning Center.

Becoming an MD Anderson volunteer
While seeking volunteer opportunities in the community 11 years ago, a friend and fellow breast cancer survivor had just finished her treatment at MD Anderson. We attended volunteer orientation together. I love to read, and when my kids were young, I volunteered in their school's library. So, The Learning Center seemed to be a good fit for me.

My friend still volunteers at MD Anderson, too. She works with Pink Ribbon volunteers in the Breast Center. 


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