I 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.
Recently by Mary Brolley
I wasn't always able to give blood.
Make a plan, know your rights to get through cancer treatment without losing your job
In the rush of emotions following a cancer diagnosis, a nagging worry may surface: How will I manage to do my job -- keep my job -- while in treatment?
It's only natural. You're overwhelmed with choices and decisions, and fulfilling your job responsibilities during this time may seem too much to handle.
But the decisions you make in the first days and weeks after diagnosis are important, so let's consider your options.
What are the first steps for those who must work during treatment?
Depending on how long it takes to get a treatment plan in place, you have a bit of time to decide what and how much to tell your employer about your health.
'How much do I tell?'
When a recurrence of ovarian cancer necessitated immediate surgery followed by months of chemotherapy, Debbie Netterville, a bus monitor in a school district in a Houston suburb, decided to level with her boss.
Call it what you will: Coincidence, happy accident or synchronicity.
Four days after emergency brain surgery at MD Anderson last July, Ken Irving called it incredible.
"I knew it was her right away," he says.
He's referring to Gilly Agosto, a patient advocate for the Department of Volunteer Services at MD Anderson, who walked into his room on the Brain and Spine inpatient unit the afternoon of Friday, July 6, and introduced herself.
Still a bit groggy, Irving couldn't find the words to greet her.
But his wife Janet was immediately struck by her unusual name.
"Did you say your name is Gilly?" she said.
"Yes, why do you ask?," Agosto replied.
Nodding at Ken, Janet said, "Well, it's just that my husband was on a plane from London with a couple named Gilly and Andy on Sept. 11, 2001, and the plane was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia ..."
Stunned, Agosto looked at Ken, then down at her clipboard, then back at him. Then she made a beeline for him.
Shelby Robin speaks to her "12-year-old self"
Shelby Robin was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma at age 12. An athletic child, she continued to participate in sports and cheerleading, even after the cancer necessitated the amputation of her left foot.
Now a clinical nurse in the Children's Cancer Hospital at MD Anderson, Shelby is a featured speaker at the 24th annual Anderson Network Cancer Survivorship Conference Sept. 14-15 at the Omni Westside, 13210 Katy Freeway.
In this video, she gives advice to her 12-year-old self.
She also explains how her childhood experience with cancer led her to choose a career helping other children facing life-threatening illnesses.
"As a nurse, I hope to show these kids that when I say, 'I understand,' I truly do understand. I hope that for them I can be a sort of 'light at the end of the tunnel,'" she says.
Shelby's inspirational story will wrap up the conference, which is open to all those who want to learn more about the issues cancer survivors face, meet and share with other survivors, take wellness classes and have fun.
Getting through cancer treatment is like surviving a siege.
When it's over, many patients resume their lives and don't look back.
For others, though, the experience compels them to help others in the same situation.
So they keep a foot in the world of cancer treatment by helping new patients individually, by staying involved with support groups, or by supporting research or advocacy efforts.
Here are brief profiles of three people who felt called to speak up for cancer patients. One lobbies for more research and awareness of pediatric cancers, another works one-on-one with patients and contributes to research, and the third counsels patients through the Anderson Network Telephone Support Line and a national foundation.
From the personal to the political
Val Marshall is the mother of a pediatric cancer patient, though pediatric hardly seems to apply to her tall, athletic son Addison, who will enroll at Texas A&M University this fall.
Since Addison was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) nearly three years ago at the age of 15, Marshall has accompanied him to countless appointments and treatments.
Outside, a winter storm brings lashing winds and heavy rain to Houston.
But in a surgical suite in MD Anderson's Main Building, Nicolas Salazar
is waking up in a hushed room.
Coming out of anesthesia, he recognizes a kind face. David Ferson, M.D., professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, smiles and gently clasps his hand.
"You're doing very well, Nicolas," he says softly. "How do you feel?"
And with that, the most important member of the team for an awake craniotomy, in which the patient is conscious and talking for a portion of the surgery, has arrived.
'Mapping the brain' before removing the tumor
A 63-year-old insurance broker from Lima, Peru, Salazar is having his second brain surgery in as many months. Diagnosed late in 2011 with a central-brain glioblastoma, he underwent surgery in Lima in December. But the tumor was too difficult for the surgeons to remove, so Salazar and his family came to MD Anderson.
The lead neurosurgeon in Room 23 is Raymond Sawaya, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, assisted by fellow Lana Christiano, M.D. Before awakening the patient, they opened his skull to expose the brain.
Now they will "map" the brain, with Salazar's help.
But not for him the easy lure of cereal and milk, pancakes or bacon and eggs.
"Most mornings, I sauté vegetables -- broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts. I look in the fridge and see what we have, and cook it up with seasonings," he says.
His three young children "love it," he adds. "It disappears in a second and, in fact, my children will not eat their eggs without veggies mixed in."
Cohen, Ph.D., professor in the departments of Behavioral Science and General Oncology, also directs MD Anderson's Integrative Medicine Program.
As his choice of breakfast foods implies, Cohen is an unabashed promoter of a healthy lifestyle. He meditates, practices yoga and carefully chooses what he eats and drinks, sticking to a mainly plant-based diet, whole grains and no sugar as much as possible.
Changed by year in Italy with grandmother
He started out a typical, meat-eating kid, then teenager. "I worked as an assistant butcher when I was in high school," he says.
He didn't get serious about watching what he ate until he went to live with his grandmother, Vanda Scaravelli, in Italy for a year when he was 24. She was a yoga master and a vegetarian. Cohen joined her in a daily yoga practice and gave up meat for the whole year.
The experience gave Cohen insight into how lifestyle changes can help people strengthen their defenses against cancer -- getting it, or having a recurrence.
Florence Arya was on top of the world.
Newly retired from a rewarding career as a geologist, eager to travel with her husband and seemingly healthy, she was stunned when a well-woman exam in 2004 revealed she had a rare form of uterine cancer.
"I was in the best shape of my life, exercising 11-1/2 hours a week," she recalls. "Then suddenly, I'm dying. I have a death sentence."
Then 57, Arya was diagnosed with stage III uterine papillary serous carcinoma, an aggressive type that accounts for less than 15% of endometrial cancers.
Arya, who was postmenopausal, had experienced some vaginal bleeding, but hadn't been too concerned about it.
Her treatment consisted of a complete hysterectomy, five weeks of radiation and five sessions of chemotherapy.
Seven years later, Arya is immensely grateful for her recovery and quick to give credit where it's due.
Dara Insley is a pain warrior.
Treatment for breast cancer in 2009 and 2010 involved two extensive and delicate surgeries -- one a double mastectomy and another in her armpit and neck -- as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Although Insley is relieved and grateful to be free of cancer, she's dealt with chronic pain and discomfort since treatment ended last year.
Pain is considered chronic when it persists for longer than three months. Insley says her pain is varied and unpredictable.
"Sometimes, it's like a gripping vice around my whole arm. Other times, my shoulder feels like someone is clamping down on it. And sometimes it's actual sharp pins-and-needles pain in my arm or finger," she says.
She prefers to use nonmedical means of controlling her pain.
"Dark chocolate, music, exercise," she says. "Crying. Praying."
And her secret weapon.
The 29th time Vincent "Dale" Sittig checked in to MD Anderson's P12
nursing unit for treatment in a Phase I clinical trial, his nurses
hatched a scheme.
"We said, 'Next time will be 30 treatments,'" says Brandi Barosh, clinical nurse on the unit. "We should throw you a party."
"He said, 'Aww, you don't have to do that.'
"But we kept at him, asking what his favorite foods are," Barosh recalls. "Eventually, we got it out of him.
"He's a celebrity on our unit. Everybody knows and loves him," she explains. "We decided to go all out."
Like all the other patients on P12, Sittig, 51, has metastatic cancer.
The unit is "home base" for the Clinical Center for Targeted Therapy, which offers experimental Phase I therapies that may eventually represent advances in cancer research and treatment.
Diagnosed in 2006 with neuroendocrine carcinoma, Sittig travels to MD Anderson from Ville Platte, La., every 28 days for testing and treatment.
"Remarkable" is an overused adjective.
But it fits each of the four keynote speakers at Anderson Network's Cancer Survivorship Conference Sept. 16-17 at the Omni Houston Hotel Westside.
Three were already on the path to success when cancer struck.
Dave Dravecky was a star pitcher for the San Francisco Giants when a desmoid tumor on his pitching arm ended his career.
Barbara Padilla was a talented young soprano hoping to be an opera star when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
And Hans Rueffert had just made it to the finals on the first season of "The Next Food Network Star" when a diagnosis of gastric cancer sidelined him.
The fourth, -- Sean Swarner, -- was just 13 when he was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Three years later, he faced and beat another cancer -- Askin's sarcoma.
Swarner went on to become an elite athlete who competes in Ironman competitions and was the first cancer survivor to climb Mount Everest.
If you suspect that cancer "runs in your family," you may be curious about -- or even considering -- genetic testing.
This testing, which involves having a blood sample taken, can reveal DNA mutations that have been identified as causing certain types of cancer.
For some, the tests provide crucial knowledge. Those who test positive for a known cancer-causing mutation can address the risks head on with increased vigilance and screenings.
But testing is not for everyone, says Banu Arun, M.D., professor in the Department of Breast Medical Oncology and co-director of the Clinical Cancer Genetics Program at MD Anderson.
"Most cancers are not hereditary," she says. "For example, only about 10% of breast cancers are inherited. The rest are "sporadic" -- that is, they occur because of a confluence of factors."
That's why Arun suggests that before deciding to be tested, you consult a genetic counselor.
Counselors help assess the chances that a person will develop a disease such as cancer. Often, the first step in the process is making a family tree, then looking for such "red flags" as having had many relatives who:
- contracted cancer before age 50
- contracted more than one primary cancer, or
- had the same or a related cancer (for example, breast and ovarian).
She recommends that women who've been diagnosed with breast cancer and suspect it's hereditary get tested before beginning treatment.
"The results might indicate the risk of contralateral breast cancer (second new primary in the opposite breast) and help with surgical decision making, for example, considering bilateral mastectomy," she says.
"Also, new targeted drugs are in development that specifically target hereditary (BRCA-related) breast cancer, and patients might be eligible for these studies."
Read more about genetic testing in the Winter issue of Network.