By Shannon Magee
On May 23, 2013, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The next week, my husband and I came to MD Anderson for my first appointment.
My friend, a doctor, had recommended I seek treatment at MD Anderson if I needed a Whipple procedure, a difficult surgery used to treat pancreatic cancer. I didn't yet know if I needed a Whipple procedure. But I didn't want to waste any time or look back with any regrets.
Plotting my attack against my pancreatic cancer
During my first appointment at MD Anderson, my amazing surgeon, Matthew Katz, M.D., told me that I would be dead in a year if I did nothing.
I wanted to live, so I asked my doctors to throw everything they had at me. Pancreatic cancer has a very high recurrence rate, and I didn't want the cancer to spread or come back.
My care team decided my best option was a new pancreatic cancer clinical trial. I was the first person to enroll.
My pancreatic cancer treatment: Chemo, radiation and the Whipple procedure.
The trial started with eight weeks of FOLFIRINOX, a chemotherapy regimen for advanced pancreatic cancer. Then, I underwent six more weeks of chemo with radiation.
After that, it was time for the Whipple procedure. During the surgery, they removed part of my pancreas, half my stomach, my small intestine, 28 lymph nodes and my portal vein. I went to the hospital for the Whipple procedure at 5 a.m. The surgery was finished about 11 hours later. By 2:00 a.m. the next morning, I was resting comfortably in the Intermediate Care ward.
Recently in Cancer Treatment Category
By Shannon Magee
By Lindsey Garner
Nova Sprague always has had a passion for animals, especially dogs. And she never thought she'd work with them instead of people. But MD Anderson drew her in, she says.
After completing her Bachelor of Animal Science from Texas State University, Sprague put her passion for animals to work at an emergency animal clinic in Austin, Texas.
There, as a veterinary technician, she assisted with cases that needed ultrasounds.
She decided to learn to perform the procedure herself and moved home to Houston to enroll in ultrasound school and work at a local veterinary clinic. While doing clinical rotations at MD Anderson, she entertained the idea of working outside veterinary medicine.
"I knew that if I was ever going to do something different, MD Anderson was the only place for me," she says. "There's something special about this place."
Now she works here as a cardiac ultrasound technologist.
Working with people and animals
Sprague enjoys the differences between working with people and with animals.
"Animals don't know what's happening and can't tell you what's wrong," she says. "Our patients share so much with me - from their life stories and struggles to simply how their days are going."
By Wendy Griffith, social work counselor
Many Americans are beginning to talk about their medical care wishes. This process of making decisions about your future health care is called advance care planning.
Some people avoid advance care planning because they think it's just for the sick or elderly. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Advance care planning is for everyone!
Many people also avoid discussing advance care planning with their loved ones because they're afraid of upsetting them. But most patients and loved ones actually report feeling a sense of relief after they've completed advance care planning.
Today, in honor of National Healthcare Decisions Day, we're encouraging our cancer patients, survivors, and their families to start the advance care planning process. To help you begin, here are answers to some common questions about advance care planning.
What is advance care planning?
Advance care planning is the process of communicating information about a patient's diagnosis, treatment options, life goals, values and wishes. It involves the patient, loved ones, and health care providers. Advance care planning is also more than a one-time event. It will probably involve ongoing conversations. Having these conversations ensures that the patient's preferences are known by the health care team and incorporated into current and future health care plans.
By Ryan Stephens
As if the cancer journey isn't tough enough, imagine being a single parent to a 15-year-old daughter.
That was the case for Constance Charles when her doctor confirmed the cluster of lumps she'd felt around her right breast was breast cancer - stage 2 noninvasive intraductal carcinoma. She had no history of cancer in her family, so the diagnosis was a complete surprise.
Constance was afraid to tell her daughter, Briahna, because she didn't want to think about her having to face the world alone. It had always just the two of them together in Texas. Their closest family members lived in Kansas.
When she finally worked up the courage and broke the news, Briahna asked, "Are you going to die, Mom?"
More than 12 years later, Constance is proud to call herself a cancer survivor and an MD Anderson employee. Constance always tells single parents - or anyone facing cancer - that faith, family and friends are what helped her and Briahna get to this point.
Advice for single parents facing cancer
Here's Constance's advice for single parents facing cancer:
By Amanda Swennes
Working as a patient services representative at MD Anderson is a little like doing a puzzle. But there's a catch: new pieces keep appearing, some disappear, and sometimes you get handed several identical pieces.
That's what our 15 full-time and three part-time patient services representatives face each day. Their puzzle is MD Anderson's 667 inpatient beds. The pieces are patients who need to be admitted.
Behind the scenes at MD Anderson
At MD Anderson, there's a lot of collaborating and puzzle-piecing that goes on behind the scenes. It often happens before a patient ever gets here.
First, a bed has to be available. And not just any bed. If a patient requires rehab or needs specialized care and accommodations for, say, a stem cell transplant, then that patient must be assigned to a bed on a floor with specialized clinical staff and equipment.
Patient services representatives have to keep constant tabs on all the patients in the hospital and know which beds are available where. They also need to know what type of diagnosis or treatment a patient has been given so they can assign the right bed.
Drew, a father of three girls under 6 years old, hadn't been diagnosed with yet, but he'd been experiencing some and was seeking a second opinion before undergoing surgery. Messick quickly stopped any fears or reservations Drew had. He turned to him and said, "I'm going to treat you like you're my brother."
It's a moment Drew will never forget.
"I have two older brothers and an older sister. From the moment he said that, I knew that I wasn't just a patient to him," he says. "I totally trust him starting with everything he said after that and still do to this day."
Recognizing rectal cancer symptoms
Since his senior year of college, Drew had struggled with Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. A former college athlete and the coach of the Air Force Academy men's basketball team, Drew had always managed the disease through diet and exercise. But in September 2013, he started experiencing stomach pain and digestion issues that wouldn't go away. He underwent a series of tests, but each one came back negative. His doctor sent him to the emergency room.
Stacy Sugg had just taken some time away from her job as a teacher to spend more time with her children and her husband. But just a few months later -- on her 16th wedding anniversary -- she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"It was not exactly the gift I was expecting," Stacy says.
To calm her fears, Stacy scheduled an appointment at MD Anderson in the Nellie B. Connally Breast Center's Multi Team Clinic in Houston, not far from her Conroe home.
Coming to MD Anderson for breast cancer treatment and a mastectomy
During her first appointment, Stacy and her husband met with all her doctors, including her surgeon, her oncologist and her radiation oncologist. They made a plan for her breast cancer treatment.
"As someone who's just been diagnosed with cancer, all you want is to know what you need to do next," she says. "We left with smiles on our faces. We had a plan, and we knew that our doctors were all on the same page. It was a very comforting feeling."
By Delia Stroud
After finding lumps in my right breast and lymph node area in January 2014, I was diagnosed with stage three triple-negative breast cancer. This was a tremendous shock because I'd had a clear mammogram only six months earlier.
To fight my very aggressive, very high-risk cancer, I immediately began five months of intense chemotherapy, followed by two surgeries and six weeks of radiation. Currently, there is no targeted therapy for triple-negative breast cancer, which made my diagnosis especially daunting.
MD Anderson's no-lose option for triple-negative breast cancer treatment
It was supremely comforting to be at MD Anderson. Triple-negative breast cancer is rare and difficult to treat, but MD Anderson is focusing on improving treatment through their Moon Shots Program, an effort to reduce cancer deaths.
Because I was blessed to be treated at MD Anderson, I felt confident I could rely completely on the expertise of my incomparable dream team of doctors -- Sharon Giordano, M.D., Beth Mittendorf, M.D., Ph.D., Eric Strom, M.D., and Melissa Crosby, M.D. My outstanding medical team fully rewarded my trust. By tweaking the approach of a cooperative group study presented shortly before my diagnosis, they provided me a true win-win option.
A standard triple-negative chemo regimen is 12 weeks of taxol, followed by four doses of adriamycin and cytoxan. In the new study, doctors gave patients an additional chemo drug called carboplatin. The study showed that this treatment was successful for 54 percent of women who took carboplatin, compared to only 40 percent of those who didn't take carboplatin. Yet, because carboplatin is highly toxic, some women could not tolerate it and had to stop their chemotherapy early.
By Kate Boone
When I was younger, calling in "sick" was typically code for "sleepy," "found something better to do" or "didn't really feel like it."
But when I was diagnosed with stage four melanoma in June 2014, I knew I'd have to take a lot of sick days because I was actually sick or trying to prevent feeling even worse. Thankfully, I've gotten by with help from my coworkers.
Coping with chemo side effects
My melanoma treatment called for oral chemotherapy. I'd take five pills a day for three months. I thought it'd be like taking aspirin with few side effects, and I would just be rid of my cancer. Easy, right?
By Jami Mayberry
As part of my vulvar cancer treatment, I underwent five days of radiation therapy treatments for six weeks.
Going into it, I had no idea what to expect, and after about two weeks, I started to feel like a baked potato that had been left in the microwave too long.
Today, I'm cancer-free, so in the end it was worth it. But it was difficult at times. Here are some things I wish I would have known before starting radiation therapy.
Last May, doctors in Iowa City, Iowa, gave Gerald Vilmont just five months to live. He'd just received his bladder cancer diagnosis a few days before, and he and his wife, Cheryle, were crushed.
That's when Gerald's daughter and her then-fiancé went online and found MD Anderson.
Today, thanks to bladder cancer advances at MD Anderson, Gerald is cancer-free and back enjoying life in Iowa.
Coming to MD Anderson for bladder cancer treatment
The first sign that MD Anderson was the right choice for Gerald came during his first visit. The doctors and nurses gave him hope -- something he had little of at that point.
"They were very encouraging, talking like I had a chance if you stuck with them," he says. "They were positive, which is what you want."
After a series of tests, Gerald's doctors -- oncologist Jennifer Wang, M.D., and surgeon Jay Shah, M.D., -- set up his treatment plan. They'd start with chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. If the chemo was successful, Gerald would have surgery to remove his bladder.
By Gillian Kruse
After starting chemotherapy, it became clear that my acute myeloid leukemia (AML) was going to be tough to beat. The chemo would kill it, but it could come back. To lower the chances of this, my doctors suggested I consider a bone marrow transplant.
I made an appointment to learn about the bone marrow transplant process. Afterwards, my care team and I decided that getting a bone marrow donation was the best option for me.
The next step was to find a bone marrow donor.
Finding my bone marrow donor
Both of my younger brothers got tested to see if he could be my bone marrow donor. The best "match" for a donor is one whose cells have the same protein markers as those of the patient.
The more markers that match, the less likely you are to have problems with your body rejecting the transplant after the procedure. Because your protein markers are hereditary, it's more likely that a patient's siblings will have similar markings.
In the end, my middle brother Jeff was my perfect match, so we scheduled his bone marrow donation. Once my AML went into remission, I would undergo the transplant.
Connect on social media
- Facing pancreatic cancer and the Whipple procedure head on
- Get to know Nova Sprague, cardiac ultrasound technologist
- 4 questions about advance care planning, answered
- A survivor's advice for single parents facing cancer
- How patient services representatives help our patients
- How a basketball coach beat rectal cancer
- Houston breast cancer survivor: 'You don't have to be brave and strong all the time'
- Finding hope after triple-negative breast cancer
- How my coworkers helped me through chemo
- 6 things to know before radiation therapy
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