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By Lindi Senez

Fighting cancer is truly a team effort. But what happens when the caregiver of the team is no longer the caregiver? What happens when your loved one passes away, and you have to find your new normal?

This is what I've struggled to figure out since my husband, Dave, died one year ago on June 30, 2014.

Saying goodbye to Dave and my role as his caregiver
For eight years, Dave fought hemangiopericytoma, a type of brain tumor, in the most relentless, selfless journey I've ever witnessed. I was his full-time caregiver while continuing to teach high school science, run our family's brain tumor foundation and care for our beautiful, blue-eyed baby boy.

After sleepless nights researching brain tumors and clinical trials that might provide relief, I began to listen when Dave said, "You'll be OK."

Still, I wasn't quite sure how I would find meaning in my life again.

Debra-Ruzensky caregiverBy Debra Ruzensky

In 2013, my role at MD Anderson changed when my husband was diagnosed with stage three diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Now I wasn't just a registered dietitian. I was a caregiver, too.

Seeing a new side of MD Anderson during lymphoma treatment
Every three weeks, my husband was admitted at MD Anderson for five to six days. Each time, I moved into his hospital room with him. I worked here during the day and went up to his room in the evenings. I ate here, showered and dressed here, heated my meals in the family lounge and made my morning cup of coffee here.

It was mentally difficult to "change hats." My eyes and ears were always in tune to his nutrition and the value it plays in treatment tolerance and recovery. Meeting some of the other caregivers on the floor and comparing notes was helpful, but at times it added to my worry and stress. I didn't want to hear any negative stories. I was trying to hold it all together and stay positive.

I had a great support system of family, friends, and coworkers praying and offering to help in other ways. The chapel was a special place for me to quietly sit and pray or just be calm.  Sunday morning masses were also a huge comfort to me.

Thyroid_Lockey_249.jpgBy Lori Baker

Hugh Lokey travels 497 miles each time he comes to MD Anderson for thyroid cancer treatment. Then it's 497 miles back home to Broken Arrow, Okla. He's been making the trip for five years, sometimes twice a month.

"It's been tremendously worth it," says Hugh, a 70-year-old Marine Corps veteran who's benefited from, and perhaps even survived because of, lenvatinib. This new thyroid cancer drug was tested here and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in February.

Like Hugh, the drug had a long journey, and each step was taken at MD Anderson.

New hope after decades with one treatment
Until recently, patients with radioiodine-refractory thyroid cancer had only one treatment option. And it didn't work for more than half.

Their fates took a turn for the better in 2006.
 
"In 2006, we began testing a drug called E7080 and found that several tumor types responded," says David Hong, M.D., in Investigational Cancer Therapeutics. "The response was particularly remarkable in thyroid cancer patients."

bryanframe611.jpgBy Bryan Frame

In 2011, I was diagnosed with aggressive metastatic prostate cancer. Because of this, my doctors had very little hope I would still be here four years later.

But after hormone treatments, injections, a radical prostectomy and lymphectomy to treat my metastatic prostate cancer, I'm still here. Not only that, but my doctor, Ana Aparicio, M.D., tells me I have reasons to hope.

Finding hope at MD Anderson after my metastatic diagnosis
Dr. Aparicio told me there are two immunotherapy treatments coming down the pike that could be game-changers for metastatic prostate cancer patients like me. They are in the last stages of clinical trials and are showing very encouraging results. Prostate cancer treatment is progressing at a very rapid pace. The longer I'm alive, the greater the chances that more therapies can benefit me.

Because of my prolonged successful time on hormone therapy, Dr. Aparicio indicated that I may respond well to other treatments.

Stephanie_madsen 611.jpgBy Stephanie Madsen

Three years after my large cell neuroendocrine cervical cancer diagnosis, I've defied the odds. The statistics gave me less than a 20% chance of surviving one year.

But I have yet to make it an entire year without cancer. I've hit the three-month mark and have even made it to eight months cancer-free. Soon, I'll lie on the cold, hard, metallic table while a machine takes pictures of my insides from head to toe. Then, I'll wait for my results. I'm hoping this time I'll be able to say I've been cancer-free for a whole year.

Praying to remain cancer-free
Once I learned that my life was not guaranteed, my prayers were taken to new heights. 


Have you ever had a prayer so desperate it crashed loudly in the torrential storm of your spirit? A plea so full of depth, it couldn't be given an audible voice? One equally full of hope and fear? Lately, my prayers have been carnal cries or petitions that bring me to my knees.

Not one of my prayers ends without the utterance of a plea to remain cancer-free for the rest of my life here on Earth. I ask for my dreams to come to fruition.

"I'd love to grow old with my husband. Please allow me to experience motherhood. I want to watch my children grow into adults and have their own children. I ask that I live until I'm wrinkled, hard of hearing and gray."

Truth be told, I'm desperate.

kimberly610.jpgFatigue. Hot flashes. Thinning hair. The nagging feeling that something just wasn't right.

In 2010, Kimberly Hill began experiencing these symptoms, so she turned to doctors in her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. They diagnosed the mother of three with thyroid cancer. Kimberly, who was 40 at the time, underwent a thyroidectomy and radical neck surgeries for treatment.

But years later, the symptoms wouldn't go away. In fact, they increased.

"I was beginning to feel like a hypochondriac," Kimberly says. "I wasn't feeling better. I was getting worse."

When doctors wanted to perform additional surgeries, Kimberly refused. She conducted her own research and was impressed by the expertise of MD Anderson's endocrine cancer team.

A different diagnosis: stage 4 lymphoma

At MD Anderson, Kimberly received a new diagnosis stage 4 lymphocyte predominate Hodgkin's lymphoma. The disease had spread to her lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow and throughout her gastrointestinal tract.

linda69.jpgBy Linda Ryan

It's been almost four years since my cervical cancer recurrence, but my two sons, Matthew (17) and Ethan (13), never traveled with me to MD Anderson until my check-up last month. I planned my appointment over their spring break so we could fit in a few college visits in Texas. I knew it might be emotionally difficult for them to go to MD Anderson. So, I did my best to handle the visit the same way I handled my treatment. I tried to let them see and feel my confidence.

Not only were we there for my appointment, but they joined me on the visits with all of the wonderful people I've have met in Houston through my journey. Both boys agreed that it was cool to see my home away from home.
 
How our visit affected my sons

After our visit, I gave Matthew and Ethan a few weeks to digest the emotions associated with going my oncology appointment before asking them a few questions separately about the experience. They both agreed that MD Anderson was not what they expected.

They were both surprised and saddened by how many people -- of all ages, races and genders -- were treated at MD Anderson. Matthew said being there made him sad because he knew what the families he saw were going through. 

claudiaschloeter.jpgBy Dawn Dorsey

As a personal trainer, Houston native Claudia Schloeter has spent 18 years helping others get in shape. She has always worked out six days a week and lives a healthy lifestyle, so she was shocked when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

An unexpected diagnosis
Claudia, now 42, started having regular mammograms at 35 because she has benign fibrocystic breast disease. While MD Anderson recommends that most women don't begin having annual mammograms until 40, Claudia often found lumps during breast self-exams. After her mammograms, doctors used ultrasound and needle biopsies to be sure suspicious areas weren't cancer.

But after a mammogram last year, a needle biopsy showed she had stage 2 breast cancer.

"I was very scared when I found out I had cancer, especially the first few days," Claudia says. "I have a little boy, and I wanted to see him grow up."

Patient64.jpgJames (Jim) Boysen first met Jesse C. Selber, M.D., four years ago. The Austin-based software developer had come to MD Anderson for reconstructive surgery after successful treatment for leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer of the smooth muscle, on his scalp had left him with a large, deep wound on his head.

But Jim, now age 55, didn't just need reconstructive surgery on his scalp and skull. He also needed another kidney and pancreas transplant. He'd previously received a kidney and pancreas transplant in 1992, due to complications from juvenile diabetes.

This presented a Catch-22 for Selber. The scalp and skull wound kept doctors from performing the second solid-organ transplant. Likewise, Jim's kidney and pancreas functions, along with his immunosuppression medications for his pancreas and kidney, complicated scalp reconstruction.

But Jim's wound, medication and organ failure ultimately became part of the solution. On May 22, he became the first person ever to receive a scalp and skull transplant simultaneously with solid organ transplants.

A transplant four years in the making
"When I first met Jim, I made the connection between him needing a new kidney and pancreas and the ongoing anti-rejection medication to support them, and receiving a full scalp and skull transplant at the same time that would be protected by those same medications," says Selber, who came up with the idea of performing the scalp and skull transplant at the same time as the kidney and pancreas transplant. "This was a unique situation that created the opportunity to perform this complex transplant."

Kate64.jpgBy Kate Boone

I knew it couldn't be good news when my doctor called at 7 a.m. to discuss my scans from the night before. My melanoma had spread, she told me. I had three new tumors in my brain and needed radiation. 

I met with the radiologist and neurosurgeon the following week. They recommended gamma knife surgery. The procedure is more like radiation than surgery. Unlike radiation therapy - which uses several treatments - gamma knife surgery targets a specific area in just one treatment.

To be honest, gamma knife surgery was one of the more difficult things I've dealt with since beginning melanoma treatment. The process was uncomfortable and triggered some anxiety, an emotion I hadn't experienced much of up until this point. But with a sense of humor and meditation, I was able to cope.

Getting fitted with a halo for gamma knife surgery

From a video I watched at MD Anderson, I learned the procedure would include having a halo placed over my head and neck. Then, I would be put into a machine, similar those used during an MRI, for the gamma knife surgery.

This is not something I'd ever expected when I received my melanoma diagnosis. I thought a halo was for injured hockey players or extreme sports athletes. Not me. Not skin cancer.     

62donislaine.jpgBy Donis Laine

My meningioma story began on a sunny and hot afternoon with a bright blue, cloudless sky.  
As I crossed a parking lot, I looked up, closed one eye and noticed that the sky seemed dark and grey. Then, I closed my left eye. The sky looked bright blue. I closed my right eye again and saw grey. I made an appointment with my optometrist the following Monday.

My meningioma diagnosis
It turned out that the problem wasn't in my eye. It was behind my eye. My optometrist sent me to a neuro-ophthalmologist. 

After an MRI and other tests, I got my diagnosis -- meningioma, a noncancerous tumor, on my optic nerve. The doctor said the tumor was inoperable and recommended targeted radiation.

Because meningioma is slow-growing, the doctor also recommended waiting a month for another MRI.

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By Shannon Magee

I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on May 23, 2013. The statistics told me that the prognosis for pancreatic cancer is pretty dismal.

But, as I've learned, statistics are not a reason to give up hope. Since my pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I've met a lot of cancer patients and caregivers through myCancerConnection, MD Anderson's one-on-one support program. Together, they have shown me that we all find our own way to cope and to hope as we journey through the darkness. As I've learned from my own experience and from listening to others' stories, keeping hope alive and maintaining a positive mindset during treatment really makes a difference.

Using visualization to cope with cancer treatment

During chemotherapy, a friend suggested that I picture a bright candle dripping wax and snuffing out the cancer cells. That was WAY too mild for me. This was a war, and I told my doctors to throw everything they had at it.  

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