November 2013 Archives

PaulTaylorandfamily.jpgBy Paul Taylor

In June 2012, I was a 41-year old husband, father of three and Army squadron commander in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I was about to deploy to Afghanistan, when a stage 4 prostate cancer diagnosis changed everything.

Well, not everything.

Instead of retiring or changing jobs in order to focus solely on my health, I made the difficult choice, supported by my commanders, to remain in command. I wasn't able to deploy but I did continue in command of almost 700 soldiers while doing all my treatment.

In retrospect, this decision was the best one I could have made. Doing what I loved allowed me to continue my normal life with my family and soldiers, while still undergoing an aggressive prostate cancer treatment program at MD Anderson.

My prostate cancer treatment
When I received my diagnosis, I tackled prostate cancer the same way I had looked at any other problem I've encountered in my 20 years of military training. I wanted another opinion and more aggressive prostate cancer treatment options, which brought me to MD Anderson.

Liz_Hill_112513.jpgBy Liz Hill

When my mom was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, I became her main caregiver. For two years, I cared for her through several surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy. I drove her from our home in Louisiana to MD Anderson, and stayed there with her for weeks at a time.

After my mom died, I felt lost. I kept thinking I needed to be taking Mom's temperature, giving her medicine, sitting with her, holding her hand, something. Mom hadn't even been 70 years old. Watching an exceptionally physically and mentally strong woman just slip away was one of the hardest things I have had to endure.

Coping with losing my mom to melanoma
A few days after my mom's memorial service, I went back to work and tried to keep my mind focused, but it was difficult. After work, I returned home, got in the shower and cried.

But this behavior was so unlike me. I was my mother's daughter. I came from a long line of strong women. I thought I needed to just suck it up and get it together. But I couldn't. No matter how many friends I leaned on, no matter how much I prayed, no matter how much I cried, the sadness just wouldn't go away. After about six months, I just couldn't take it anymore.

Harley.jpgBy Harley Hudson

Eight weeks. That's how long my wife and I have been in Houston, where I entered a Phase 1 drug trial for ABT-199, a new experimental drug that may provide at least a long-term solution, if not a cure, for my chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

We came not knowing what would happen or what to expect. We were amateurs, neophytes, newbies, 76-year-old children going to the doctor for the first time, figuratively speaking.

Beginning a Phase 1 clinical trial for CLL treatment
We had read the protocol and knew a bit about what we were facing. We were willing to sign the documents to allow both the drug company and MD Anderson to use this drug on me for my CLL treatment. But what would happen?

Would I have serious adverse reactions to the drug? I was in a high-risk category because of the size of a mass of lymph nodes in my abdomen.

As such, the risk of Tumor Lysis Syndrome (TLS), a metabolic complication that can occur after cancer treatment, was pretty high, but the trial protocol was designed to reduce the risks. We knew I would be hospitalized for every drug dosage increase so that if something happened, I would be ready for immediate treatment.

We knew a lot. We knew nothing. We were excited. We were leery.

Sabrina.jpgBy Sabrina Dominguez

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" As I grazed through elementary school, the answer was never an Olympic gymnast or an astronaut. I never wanted to be the president or a princess. I wanted to save lives.

But little did I know that years later, doctors would save my life after I received a diagnosis of medulloblastoma, a common type of brain tumor in children, just a few days before my 16th birthday.

Today, four months after my medulloblastoma diagnosis, I do not see my disease as something terrible. I don't accept pity, nor do I feel sorry for myself. I see this as a learning opportunity and a story to tell to my peers when I'm allowed to go back to school.

My medulloblastoma symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

I had been having bad headaches in the back of my head. Occasionally, I would even black out and collapse. We knew something was wrong.

On Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, I received my medulloblastoma diagnosis. I underwent surgery, but the doctors in El Paso could only remove 20 percent of the tumor. That's when my family traveled to MD Anderson.

Erika_Evans_.jpgEvery day, acute myeloid leukemia (AML) survivor Erika Evans runs four miles around Lake Austin. Just two years ago she thought she'd never run again. Worse, she thought she might not live.

Erika's AML symptoms

On that same running trail in 2011, Erika felt her first AML symptom: a relentless cough. She assumed it was allergies.


She tried cold medications, but the cough grew worse, until Erika could barely walk short distances without coughing. She decided to see a doctor.


A series of blood test showed she had chronic leukemia. Erika didn't waste a moment. She told her doctor, "Well, at least we can treat it."


Doctors concluded Erika had acute lymphocyte leukemia (ALL) and began chemotherapy. But by the time the treatment was complete, the size of her cancer had doubled. Erika had been misdiagnosed.

gerardneumannwithgrandchildren.jpgBy Gerard Neumann

It saved my life. But before I underwent the stem cell transplant as part of my acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment, I had seriously considered backing out.

My AML treatment plan
A stem cell transplant was not what I'd been hoping for. I'd hoped that the clinical trial I was on as part of my AML treatment would put me in remission.

However, that was not to be. So my leukemia doctor at MD Anderson sent me to the stem cell unit for a transplant.

When I landed at the airport in Houston to go meet with a stem cell doctor at MD Anderson, I met a man and told him why I was there. Like many I met on my AML journey, he encouraged me and said I would be in his prayers.

Afterwards, I went to MD Anderson for final testing and an appointment with Chitra Hosing, M.D., professor in Stem Cell Transplant and Cellular Therapy. I told her my concerns about the transplant, and she reassured me. She never pressed me to go forward, but she talked about windows of opportunity. I was in remission, albeit incomplete, and remission was the time for a stem cell transplant. I left her office ready to move forward.

Second thoughts about my stem cell transplant
The next Saturday, my daughter-in-law, Ali, and I got in the car to drive to the hospital for my transplant.

About halfway there I got a call from the sister of a friend I had made at the transfusion unit. Her brother, Jesus, was a leukemia patient, like me. I had been jealous of him because he'd gotten his treatment and gone home to El Paso to recover. I had really thought that is what I would be doing, too.

Jesus' sister told me that he died from chemo poisoning. The call could not have come at a worse time. I could no longer think about myself. This woman had just lost her brother. He'd left behind two young children and a wife.

older man and woman arms around each other.jpg

Being a cancer caregiver can be very rewarding, but it isn't easy. As a caregiver, you may experience stress, worry, fear and anger -- among other feelings -- throughout the cancer treatment and beyond. After all, you're busy caring for your loved ones, helping them schedule appointments and making tough decisions. That's why we call caregivers survivors.

We asked a few caregivers to share what they wish they'd have known before their cancer journeys. Here's what they had to say.

You can find light within the dark
"I didn't know, but learned, that the cancer journey will be what you make of it. There's always light within the dark, if you're willing to see it.

Through our darkest times, my fiancé and I learned to communicate more effectively, find joy in the smallest things, and appreciate the daily gift of life. Those happy habits have carried over into our married life and strengthened our bond in wonderful ways: we're more selfless, we take time to express our appreciation, we're much more patient, and we forgive each other quickly. The cancer journey has given us that gift."

-- Katie Narvarte Ozuna, chronic myeloid leukemia caregiver


By Brittany Cordeiro

Each day in the United States, about 4,000 kids smoke their first cigarette. Many of them will become daily smokers.

"For teens, it may seem cool to smoke. But tobacco use at a young age can cause immediate and long-term health problems like cancer," says Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Tobacco Outreach Education Program at MD Anderson.

Recent data shows that the declining number of teen tobacco users has stalled. And, the tobacco industry may be to blame.

The industry advertises products, like e-cigarettes, flavored cigarillos and hookahs, as "safe" and is capturing the attention of kids.

"All tobacco products are dangerous," Prokhorov says. "We need to be proactive about educating our communities, schools and governments about the dangers of these products." 

Use the facts below to educate kids about the health risks of trendy tobacco products.

Cigarillos contain dangerous chemicals
Cigar use among high school students rose from 7% in 2009 to 12% in 2011. One main factor: flavored cigarillos.

DiNardo.jpgAt MD Anderson, we're constantly looking for innovative new ways to provide the best possible cancer treatment options for our patients as we work toward our mission of Making Cancer History®. To help with this, we've enlisted a cognitive computing system powered by IBM Watson.

This technology, known as Oncology Expert Advisor™ (OEA), will soon be used by our doctors and researchers as part of our Moon Shots Program, starting with our fight against leukemia. Ultimately, we hope to use the OEA in all of our clinics to help our patients regardless of their cancer type.

By pulling together and analyzing vast amounts of information from patient and research databases, the OEA is expected to help our care teams identify and fine-tune the best possible cancer treatments for our patients, while also alerting them to problems that arise during a patient's care. The OEA is also expected to help our researchers advance new discoveries in our fight against cancer.

We recently spoke with Courtney DiNardo, M.D., assistant professor in Leukemia, who's been testing the OEA before it debuts in our leukemia clinic. Here's what she had to say.

What are the benefits of using the OEA to organize and collect data about our patients?
The OEA can extract patient information from various data sources and synthesize all available medical records into a clear, concise and accurate synopsis. It can analyze clinical information, medical history, as well as leukemia-related information, such as specific genetic and molecular features, and look at all available information in the context of published evidence-based guidelines and available clinical trials.

hands black and white-FB.JPGBy Heather Valladarez, social work counselor

"How do I work, take care of my kids, be a good spouse, and find care for my loved one during the day?"

"I am taking care of my dad throughout the day, but I don't have any time for myself. This is becoming stressful."

These are just some of the situations that bring stress to caregivers for cancer patients.

While the caregiving experience can be extremely rewarding, it can also be very challenging. This so-called caregiver fatigue can be difficult both physically and emotionally.
As a cancer caregiver, you may experience any or all of the following emotional or physical stressors:

  • feeling overwhelmed
  • a lack of energy or feeling tired for long periods of time
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • weight gain, weight loss or other physical symptoms
  • losing interest in activities you once enjoyed

altonwhitleyandwife.jpgBy Col. Alton Whitley

I retired from the U.S. Air Force after serving 26 years as a fighter pilot.  After that, I served another 15 years as a high school Air Force Junior ROTC instructor. My military service included two tours in Vietnam and combat action in Operation Desert Storm, where I served as the commander of the unit that flew the Fii7A stealth fighter. 

But my latest battle came in February 2013, when, at age 67, I received a prostate cancer diagnosis.

I had watched my Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test scores climb slowly over several years, but a dramatic increase in a recent physical exam had motivated me to have a biopsy. The biopsy came back positive for prostate cancer.

Choosing my prostate cancer treatment                   
I diligently evaluated my prostate cancer treatment options. I discussed a variety of cancer treatments with my primary care physician, my urologist, a radiation oncologist and other men who had experienced prostate cancer. But I was not particularly pleased with what I heard regarding the options available to me in my hometown. 

I kept going back to an option I had discovered on the website for MD Anderson: proton therapy.


Suzan Shughart had an extra reason to celebrate on her 60th birthday: It was also her last day of lung cancer treatment at MD Anderson.


It was a day she'd thought might never come. Less than a year earlier, doctors had told Suzan she had 18-24 months to live.


"My brain just said no," she says. "I've got four children. I've got grandchildren. I have a lot of living to do."   


A mysterious lung cancer diagnosis

When Suzan had first received her cancer diagnosis, her doctors were stumped. Her test results showed both large and small cell lung cancer, not in her lung but in her chest.


Her doctor suggested that she start treatment and, said that if that didn't work, she could seek a second opinion at MD Anderson. But Suzan decided to skip the first step, instead heading to Houston, home to MD Anderson and one of Suzan's sons.

At MD Anderson, doctors spent a whole day examining Suzan. Then, for the next 30 days, they performed different tests on her, trying to find the best way to defeat her cancer.


Eventually, Suzan received her lung cancer diagnosis: a high-grade neuroendocrine carcinoma, an anterior mediastinal tumor attached to the pericardium, a double-walled sac that holds the heart and aorta. Her treatment was to include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. After undergoing surgery, she was able to return home to Arizona to have her chemotherapy administered.

FaithLeonard.jpgFaith Leonard wasn't sad when her son, Shane, left for college. While many of her friends in the same situation shared a tearful goodbye with their children, Faith was happy.

Just a year earlier, Shane had undergone seven weeks of proton therapy treatment for adenoid cystic carcinoma at MD Anderson. Faith and her husband Bill didn't know if Shane would live, let alone attend college.

But with his cancer in remission, Shane was ready to begin his freshman year, and his parents were grateful this day had come.


"We're so thankful that he's well, and that trumps everything else," Faith says. "Because we had such a big problem in front of us, now everything seems easy."


Adenoid cystic carcinoma treatment: caring for her son

It wasn't until she returned home that Faith realized the hole left by Shane's departure.


At a time when most of his peers were exploring their independence and becoming less reliant on their parents, cancer had left Shane with no choice but to become more reliant on his mom and dad. His survival had depended on it.

african american woman with son.jpg

By Erin Buck, Ph.D., and Martha A. Askins, Ph.D.


When parents are faced with changes to their appearance or bodily functioning as a side effect of cancer and cancer treatment, they often struggle with what to tell their children. To protect their kids emotionally, parents sometimes delay or avoid talking to children about cancer treatment.


But that can lead to confusion, isolation and anxiety for children. These conversations can be helpful for both kids and parents.

Here is our advice for talking to your kids about physical changes resulting from cancer.


When should I talk to my children about physical changes?

Timing of the conversation depends on your child's development and maturity. School-aged kids and adolescents benefit from preparing for a parent's surgery weeks to months in advance, but very young children tend to benefit from a shorter preparation time span. 

It may not be possible to give your child the optimal amount of time to prepare, so make the most of whatever time you do have. Just remember: advance preparation is key.

Harley.jpgBy Harley Hudson

If you are wondering what it's like to be in a clinical trial, I have an answer: It's different from other types of leukemia treatment.

I have been through every drug available to treat my chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), all of them infusions taking up to six or seven hours. I have had cancer treatment side effects ranging from insomnia to hair loss and a few reactions in between. I know chemotherapy. I have friends with other types of leukemia who have been taking a pill for several years. I was jealous, but not anymore.

My clinical trial for CLL treatment
ABT-199, the trial drug I am on, is a pill. It's nice not having to sit in a recliner to get an infusion for a whole day. What isn't nice is the requirement that I take the pill at exactly 8a.m. every day within 30 minutes of a low-fat breakfast.

Every morning no later than 7:25 a.m., I head to the hotel breakfast room and choose oatmeal, dried cranberries, granola and brown sugar, although what I really want are sausages and waffles. I sometimes supplement that with a slice of brown bread and jam -- no butter.

Yeah, it is a boring breakfast, but the selections are very limited for a low-fat breakfast. I'm back in my room in time to take the bright yellow pill.


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