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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. 

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.

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The holidays can be difficult when you or a loved one is undergoing cancer treatment. But while your usual traditions may be interrupted, the holiday spirit can still be found.

We asked several survivors how they coped with cancer during the holidays and what advice they had for patients undergoing treatment during the holidays.

Here's what they had to say.

 Focus on what makes you happiest about the holidays
"Life has changed, and every holiday provides me with a deeper appreciation for being given another year. Cancer hasn't changed the way I celebrate holidays, but it makes being around family and friends much more special.


Find what makes you the happiest about the holidays and nourish it, feed it, water it. And then watch it grow, empower and inspire." 
--
Justin Ozuna, chronic myeloid leukemia survivor

Mai12.9.jpgOn the fifth anniversary of the day she entered remission, Mai Salem was told her pancreatic cancer had returned.

At first, Mai was devastated. For five years, Mai had provided hope for other pancreatic cancer patients as a volunteer for the Anderson Network, a support group that pairs new patients with survivors who share their same cancer diagnosis. But after her recurrence, she wasn't so sure she could still be a voice of hope.

 

Over time, though, Mai has come to realize that despite her pancreatic cancer recurrence, the way she continues to live her life remains an inspiration to her fellow patients.

 

"I enjoy life to the maximum," she says. "That's what I do. I try to enjoy everything I can, when I can."

 

Mai's pancreatic cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Mai had been experiencing stomach pain for several months, but her local doctor kept dismissing her complaints, telling her it was all the spicy Thai food she ate.

 

Eventually, she sought a second opinion. Tests showed that Mai had pancreatic cancer -- more specifically, a neuroendocrine tumor that metastasized to her liver.

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.

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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

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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.

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Thyroid cancer is the number one fastest rising cancer in women. Although it accounts for about 1% of all cancers, it is becoming much more common. At least 450,000 people in the United States have completed treatment or are living with thyroid cancer. 

 

We recently spoke with Steven Sherman, M.D., chair of Endocrine Neoplasia and Hormonal Disorders, about the rise in thyroid cancer cases, thyroid cancer symptomsthyroid cancer diagnosis and thyroid cancer treatment. Here's what he had to say.

 

About 75% of people diagnosed with thyroid cancer are women. Why are women more likely than men to develop this disease?

Doctors aren't sure why more women develop thyroid cancer. All thyroid diseases are more common in women than men.

 

But when it comes to thyroid cancer, the difference of occurrences in gender disappears for children who have not entered puberty and older adults. So, thyroid cancer may be related to female hormones.

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Whether you're coping with cancer or another challenge, a mantra can help you get through it. 

Many of the cancer patients, caregivers and survivors who have contributed to Cancerwise have shared wonderful words of wisdom that others have looked to for encouragement and inspiration throughout their cancer journeys. 

Here some of our most popular quotes from our Cancerwise bloggers.

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For cancer patients and caregivers, it can often be difficult to find a reason to smile. Depression, stress and fatigue brought on by cancer treatment are some of the factors patients and caregivers face daily.

 

But even in the toughest times, it's important to maintain hope. Studies show that mental health and social well-being can impact treatment outcomes.

 

So, we asked several cancer patients and caregivers what makes them smile, especially on tough days. We hope their answers -- shared below -- will give you a reason to smile, too.


Reasons cancer patients and caregivers smile even on their hardest days

"So many things make me happy. I am especially happy when I think about the smile I get from my grandson John-Paul. He had just been born when I was diagnosed. I spent a lot of time at his home while being treated and feel a special closeness to him. Even though he was just an infant, I really believe he remembers me being there and is happy that his grandpa survived." 

-- Gerard Neumann, acute myeloid leukemia survivor


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