January 2014 Archives

lindaRyan_patient_0006 cervical cancer.JPG

By Linda Ryan

My most recent goal was to watch a marathon. Yes, watch. 

I know that watching the race will motivate me to run another one. In 2011, I completed my first marathon.  Four weeks later I found an enlarged lymph node that indicated my cervical cancer was back.  

It's been almost two years since I finished the eight rounds of chemotherapy that it took to rid my body of the disease. Now, need to prove to myself that I'm just as strong as I was before cancer.   

Finding motivation during my cervical cancer treatment
Spectating has always motivated me to participate in athletic activities.  I think it's normal for people feel that way. For example, when I watch Olympic ice skating, I want to go to an ice rink. In my mind I look graceful and beautiful as I skate across the ice, but in reality my posture is poor and my movements are mechanical. 

During my cervical cancer treatment, I purposely participated in events that I wouldn't necessarily have before, such as skydiving. There was no guarantee I would live to put those items on a list to do when I was feeling better.  

Sleep.jpgBy Brittany Cordeiro 

Sleep is essential to life. 

But restless nights are all too common for cancer caregivers, who may be experiencing stress or caring for a loved one who is also suffering from disrupted sleep. 

"Sleep deprivation negatively affects a person's health and quality of life," says Diwakar Balachandran, M.D., MD Anderson Sleep Center medical director. It can cause moodiness, memory troubles and problems focusing. Chronic sleep loss also may lead to weight gain, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. As a caregiver, it's important to get enough sleep so you can care for your loved ones. A healthy lifestyle and simple behavior changes can do the trick. Balachandran answered some common questions on getting a better night's rest. 

How do you know if you are getting adequate sleep?  
Studies show people live the longest if they get between seven and eight hours of sleep each night. But some people may do well with less and some need more.

Ask yourself: "Do I feel rested when I awake?" And, "Do I feel alert during the day until it's time to go to bed?" If the answers to both questions are yes, you're probably getting enough sleep.

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By Brandie Sellers 

All cancer sucks. However, I must admit (not-so-secretly) that I envy people who complete cancer treatment. In my case, breast cancer treatment has been constant since my diagnosis and recurrence in 2011. I often return to MD Anderson for CT scans, bone scans, chest ultrasounds and other tests that come along with having a later stage breast cancer diagnosis. The scans are never completely clear, and there's always something to watch. Living without absolutes really messes with my head.  

Living from cancer treatment follow-up exam to follow-up exam 

I'm always hesitant to make plans for more than six months ahead of time. That's how often I have my follow-up scans. With so much uncertainty, it's easy for me to get into the pattern of living my life in short bursts. I wonder, "Why plan something for next year?  What if I'm in cancer treatment again?"


By Stephanie Schmidt

I'll never forget the phone call I received in December 2012. I rushed to my parents' house, where my mom met me outside. I asked her, "Is it cancer?" She nodded her head as I hurried into the house and climbed into bed with my dad.

Dad had lost a lot of weight and felt sick for several weeks. A CT scan showed a malignancy that caused obstruction in his colon. He was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer with liver metastases.

Through tears, my parents, my brothers and I discussed that we were not going to give up, no matter what. Dad had too many things he wanted to do. He wanted to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. He wanted to meet his future grandkids. He wanted to grow old with my mom. 

"We're going to war with cancer," he said.

I took on this attitude, too. My dad is my best friend. Accepting that I wouldn't have him in my life just wasn't an option for me.

My dad's colon cancer treatment
Just two days after his colon cancer diagnosis, Dad had surgery at a hospital in our hometown in South Carolina. But he would need another surgery to remove the 8 tumors from his liver. Despite our local oncologist's best efforts, not one surgeon in the area was willing to perform the operation. But Dad refused to give up.


Alma Faz's goal has always been to run. After losing her leg during simultaneous bone cancer and ovarian cancer treatments, Alma tried participating in other sports while wearing prosthesis: cardio kickboxing, skiing, weightlifting, spinning and cycling. But through it all, she wanted to return to running. It was one of the things she missed most.

On Jan. 19, more than 15 years after her amputation, Alma not only reached her goal, but surpassed it as she crossed the finish line of the Chevron Houston Marathon.

"It was the culmination of more than three years of training, with many trials and tribulations along the way," Alma says. "It's the realization of a dream that I sometimes felt, in my early running efforts, would never become a reality."

Finding a career through cancer treatment 
Alma was a college freshman when she received her cancer diagnosis. She survived both cancers, but her right leg had to be amputated mid-calf. 

caregivers1.23.jpgBy Erin Buck, Ph.D., and Irene Teo, Ph.D.

Cancer treatment and sexuality can be awkward to discuss, but opening the lines of communication can make a big difference for patients and their romantic partners.


Cancer treatment often leads to changes in appearance or bodily functioning. When these changes happen, patients may feel less positively about their bodies and their sexuality. The strain these changes put on romantic relationships and sexual health often goes unaddressed.  

One way to cope with changes and strengthen your relationship as a couple is to communicate openly with one another.  Here's advice for communicating about appearance or functional changes you or your partner may experience due to cancer and cancer treatment:


Start the conversation

The first step toward managing feelings about physical changes is to discuss them with one another. If there's something on your mind, it may be on your partner's mind too. In difficult times it can be comforting to share your experiences and be reassured. Remind each other that you are in this together.

MaryGinley1.jpgBy Mary Ginley

I had my idea of a near perfect life, until I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

My husband and I were living less than 10 minutes from the beach in Venice, Fla. I was on the beach every morning for yoga with friends and each evening for a sunset walk. I was substitute teaching at the local schools, doing  volunteer work, participating in a  book club, meeting friends for lunch, welcoming visitors who escaped the cold winters  in the northeast, and heading  to the Dallas area every few months to see the cutest grandchildren on the planet.  

But then everything turned upside down.  

An esophageal cancer diagnosis
I had been having trouble swallowing and assumed it was acid reflux. When the call came that I had a much bigger problem, I was stunned. It wasn't acid reflux, but rather esophageal cancer symptoms. Esophageal cancer? I had never heard of it.

harley1.7.jpgBy Harley Hudson

During my trips to MD Anderson for my chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment, I noticed a group of people who seldom receive accolades.

They collectively form a large part of the heart of MD Anderson, but remain rather invisible. They come every shift, perform their assigned tasks and do it efficiently without fanfare.

They are the volunteers in the short blue jackets who inhabit the halls and centers of the vast complex of MD Anderson.

How MD Anderson volunteers make a difference
They are the young and the not so young whose task is to make life for patients and families a little bit easier. They are the greeters at the door who make us feel welcome as we walk into the facilities. They are the people who man the Hospitality Centers and Information Centers and answer our questions.

They are the musicians who comfort our souls as they play their instruments in the entry halls and The Park on the second floor of the Main Building. They are floor host and patient advocate volunteers who come into patient rooms and offer comfort items.

They are the volunteers who push their carts through the waiting rooms offering hot coffee, hot chocolate and hot tea to patients and families. 


By Tom Barber

In the four years since I completed lung cancer treatment, I've been dedicated to showing others that there is hope and the possibility of a wonderful life after lung cancer.

As the fourth of six immediate family members who have had lung cancer and the only one who has survived, I started this new life with the words "I can," my faith and the support of family and friends. I've had the privilege of working with MD Anderson's survivorship group and completing a couple of triathlons, a half-marathon and some other running events.

But in August, my cancer journey took an unexpected turn when I was diagnosed with melanoma.

My melanoma diagnosis: A new chapter
During my lung cancer checkup, I asked the doctors to investigate a spot of concern to me on my upper torso. That spot turned out to be nothing.

But, once again, an incredibly skilled doctor at MD Anderson may have saved my life by finding a very small melanoma tumor on my shoulder. It was hardly remarkable. It was the size of a freckle.

I was devastated by the melanoma diagnosis, but I also was confident in my team and my ability to wage the war. Small seems to always be good where cancer is concerned. As a part of my melanoma treatment, I had a surgery to remove some skin and tissue, as well as the sentinel lymph node.

iStock_000003443440Small.jpgBy Brianna Garrison and Sarah Hines, social work counselors

"In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times."
― Robert Emmons

Gratitude is a conscious decision that allows us to gain perspective by viewing a situation through an alternate lens. Cultivating gratitude can help those affected by cancer cope.

While it can be difficult to feel grateful during cancer treatment, gratitude makes it possible to remain realistic about the negative impacts of a cancer diagnosis and still identify potential benefits or areas of personal growth.

Cancer patients, survivors and caregivers have told us they've used gratitude to find some of
the following benefits during their cancer experience:

  • Closer relationships with family members and friends
  • Reevaluation of priorities
  • Taking control of a personal health situation
  • Spiritual and personal growth
  • Setting and achieving new goals
  • Greater flexibility, patience, and resilience

My uveal melanoma journey

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Marla Avery hadn't even heard of uveal melanoma until she received her cancer diagnosis in 2008. For a year, Marla had been experiencing blurred vision, causing her to fall down stairs, trip over sidewalks and lose her job as a makeup artist.

As a doctor explained, her blurred vision was caused by a large mass in her eye. The mass was so large, he said, that she might have to have her eye removed.


Marla was devastated. She worked in the beauty industry where appearances mattered, and she knew a missing eye couldn't be concealed with makeup. She also feared how Stephen, her boyfriend at the time, would react.


Losing her eye was a last resort. Marla decided to travel from her home in Dallas to seek a second opinion from an uveal melanoma specialist at MD Anderson, where coincidentally, a family friend recently had been treated for uveal melanoma as well.


Enucleation: Marla's uveal melanoma treatment

MD Anderson's Dan Gombos, M.D., confirmed her worst fears about her uveal melanoma as she sat in an exam room surrounded by her family. If doctors didn't remove Marla's eye, she would die.

Kamat_Cysto_184_small.jpgby Jacqueline Mason

If you've been in the dark about advances in cancer surgery, look no further than the emerging field of minimally invasive operations aided by fluorescence.

New technologies make it possible to highlight and eradicate more cancer cells in real time using fluorescent dyes and endoscopic instruments with filtered light. Patients hardly can tell the difference from traditional surgery, especially when they're spared future recurrence from otherwise hidden cancer cells.

While fluorescence isn't appropriate for every case, surgeons in Urology and Gynecologic Oncology are especially excited about two new uses.

New hope for bladder cancer patients
H. Barton Grossman, M.D., clinical professor in Urology, helped prove the effectiveness of fluorescence cystoscopy as principal investigator of a large, randomized study of bladder cancer patients in 2007.


By Jenny Montgomery

When Sara Souto Strom was growing up in Argentina, she wanted to be a mathematician. But she became a marine biologist instead. Then a cancer researcher.

That's what can happen when nothing much daunts you, not even pursuing a Ph.D. or two.

Now an associate professor in Epidemiology, she's followed a career path that looks a lot like an expedition.

Call of the wild

Strom recalls having a scientific, inquiring mind even as a child in Buenos Aires. Whether exploring the patterns of numbers or nature, Strom was drawn to discovery. When her twin sister was getting interested in boys, Strom was getting serious about zoology.

It wasn't merely the dispassionate interest of a scientist.

"I still like any animal that moves," she says. "Jellyfish, lizards, horses. Human beings, too. They all need help."

Eventually Strom set her sights on marine biology, and she spent seven years earning bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Buenos Aires.

Her research as a marine biologist led her to the discovery of a new species of one-celled protozoa -- and to her future husband. She was studying plankton on a research vessel off the coast of Antarctica when she met Gary Strom. He was the American-born first mate.

chaplains122013.jpgBy Lindsay Lewis

Andrea Ferguson will never forget a defining moment in her education as a chaplain.

During a visit with a patient of a different religious background than her own, Ferguson sensed she might not be the right chaplain to meet the patient's spiritual needs. As she prepared to leave, she was asked to stay -- the patient simply needed someone to be there.

"I'll always remember that moment, because it shows what being a chaplain is all about," Ferguson says. "We're here to meet our patients where they are and journey with them."

MD Anderson chaplains are graduate-educated members of our interdisciplinary care teams who provide spiritual care to patients, families and staff of all faith traditions.

"We're here to contribute to the holistic care of patients and caregivers," says Gale Kennebrew, D.Min., director of Spiritual Care and Education. "And we respect the beliefs of all people who come into our care."

Different from most clergy
Chaplain David Stouter admits the role of a chaplain in a health care setting sometimes is misunderstood.

"We often have to explain how our job differs from other clergy, especially since many hospitals work only with volunteer ministers from the local community to serve their patient population," he says.

Ben Sanders

By Ben Sanders

For me, the side effects from my prostate cancer and melanoma have lasted longer than the cancer cells did. I endured prostate cancer treatment in 2002, and metastatic melanoma treatment five years later.

But the side effects have had their benefits: I'm now 75 years old, and it turns out that my experience with cancer's side effects has helped me age better. 

Coping with cancer treatment side effects
After dealing with prostate cancer, I can no longer take emptying my bladder for granted. I sometimes have accidents, which are no fun at all. So now, I take my time and pay attention.

The lymphedema, or build up of protein-rich fluid, that followed my metastatic melanoma surgery means I can no longer take vigorous use of my arms for granted. That is, unless I want some swelling and inflammation. So, each morning I put on a compression sleeve and watch the manly deeds of might. The swelling reduces as the pressure from the compression sleeve prevents the fluid from collecting.  

Learning to slow down with age, thanks to cancer
In dealing with the challenges brought about by these side effects, I have found that I need to be consciously attentive and mindful. All the time. No excuses. 

quit_smoking_how_to_curb_the_urge.JPGThis Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General's 1964 Report on Smoking and Health, the first major statement in the United States linking smoking to lung cancer.

With more than 200,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer each year in the United States and smoking contributing to 87% of lung cancer deaths and 30% of all cancer deaths, this landmark report and the 30 subsequent Surgeon General's Reports on smoking have greatly influenced what we do here at MD Anderson.

Here are four ways the Surgeon General's Report has impacted our work and -- and our cancer patients and their families.

1.    We've hired more researchers focused on smoking and cancer.
"The 1964 Surgeon General's Report set the stage for extraordinary increase in knowledge and research on tobacco and cancer that's occurred since then," says Ellen R. Gritz, Ph.D., chair of Behavioral Science at MD Anderson and an author and/or editor for nine Surgeon General's reports on smoking and tobacco.

Martin1314.jpgBy Jennifer Martin

Ever since my husband Steve's melanoma diagnosis two years ago, I have poured my everything into building melanoma awareness. From research to fundraising to sharing our story, we've done it all.

But after all this time, I began to feel worn out. So, in September, when Steve's last scans for his melanoma treatment revealed that he showed no evidence of the disease (NED), we decided our family should celebrate by forgetting about melanoma. Well, at least trying to forget about melanoma.

Taking a step back from melanoma
I stepped back, but not completely away, from melanoma. I'm not sure when I last posted on Facebook about tanning legislation. I can't tell you about the latest research.

Instead, we lived life. We had a new house built. We spent more time with family and friends. Steve and I took several weekend getaways to reconnect as husband and wife. That connection is so important, and it's so easy when dealing with a cancer diagnoses for the relationship to turn into patient and caregiver.

I still read about our melahomies, our friends going through melanoma treatment. But for the most part, I was absent from it all. I felt a little guilty, but I just wanted to forget it all.

Melanoma follow-up appointments: Returning to reality

But now, we're back again. The months passed, and it was time for Steve's three-month check-up. The three-month check-up sounds so routine, so uneventful, so simple. But for Steve and our family, it was anything but.

iStock_000011750431Medium.jpgBy Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D.

It's that time of year ... when we resolve to lose weight, exercise more and eat more healthfully.

Changes like these can reduce our chances of developing cancer and improve our overall health and quality of life. But our experience and studies show that New Year's resolutions often fall by the wayside a few weeks into the year. We know what we need to do, and have good intentions, but most of us are not able to turn resolutions into reality.

If you're serious about making changes, consider the following tips.


Danielle Harmon thought she was too young for cancer, but at age 31, she was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer following a routine well-woman exam.

The mother of a 1-year-old boy, Sam, was shocked.

"I just cried and cried. I thought, 'I'm going to die ... I'm not going to see Sam grow up.'"

Danielle was concerned that her husband Jason would have to raise their son alone.

A Houston area resident, Danielle says her family felt blessed to live close to the best place for cancer treatment. Making an appointment at MD Anderson, she says, was a no-brainer.

"Immediately when you arrive at MD Anderson you get the feeling that these people are serious ... they know what they're doing. They make you feel like you have a fighting chance to survive the disease," she reflects.

Danielle's breast cancer treatment included a mastectomy and breast reconstruction, as well as six rounds of chemotherapy. "It wasn't an easy experience, but we got through it. I got a clean bill of health, and we were continuing on with our lives," she says.

An unexpected blessing from breast cancer
More devastating than the disease, though, was that that Danielle would not be able to have more children due to the need for long-term chemotherapy.


By Gerard Neumann

Leaving the hospital after a stem cell transplant is a blessing. However, it is a little like a game of Russian roulette.

As a result, stem cell transplant patients have to take precautions that make sense but are sometimes not too much fun. Doctors and nurses advise us to wash our hands a lot, avoid buffets, wear hospital masks, not to eat fresh fruit or vegetables, be careful at restaurants and avoid crowds.

I had just one experience with an incident regarding my compromised immune system. It happened during my acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment after my second round of chemotherapy and before my stem cell transplant. It resulted in a ride to the MD Anderson emergency room in an ambulance.


At 37 years old, a stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis is tough to swallow. If you're a working mother of twin boys, one of them with special needs, a triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis can be even more daunting.

So, for Bree Sandlin, coming to MD Anderson for her triple-negative breast cancer treatment was the only choice there ever was.

Bree's triple-negative breast cancer treatment

"When I first arrived at MD Anderson to meet with my oncologist, I had pages of notes and questions," Bree recalls. "My doctor took the time to go through each one and laid out the plan for me. She did an amazing job leaving me with a feeling of hope, optimism and encouragement for the future."

Bree's plan consisted of six months of chemotherapy, followed by a bilateral mastectomy, and ended with six weeks of radiation therapy. When doctors removed the tumor during surgery, they found no trace of cancer.

A new outlook on life

Now 38, Bree calls herself a survivor, having been in remission with no sign of triple-negative breast cancer since April 2013.


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