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helenvollmer723.jpgBy Helen Vollmer

When I was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer almost a year ago, I went through all the standard emotions: disbelief, anger, fear and utter confusion.

As someone in perfect health, according to my charts, I was suddenly confronted with something beyond my control. No matter what I did, I still had cancer, and there were no guarantees that I would be cured.

Deciding where to go for breast cancer treatment
After the initial shock of the diagnosis lifted, I knew that I needed to act. Where to start? An oncologist? A surgeon? Was it more important where they had studied, what hospital they were associated with, how many patients they treated or the personal connection between us? I, like others who go down this path, had a dizzying array of choices to make with, frankly, only limited guidance.

My gynecologist had given me the name of three Houston oncologists to choose from for breast cancer treatment, but it was up to me to check them out. I started calling friends and colleagues who either had personal or professional connections to the Texas Medical Center.

ashleyandmarshalllauen428.jpgBy Ashley Lauen    

My husband, Marshall, was diagnosed with stage 2B Hodgkin's lymphoma about a year-and-a-half ago. Through our lymphoma treatment journey, we spent a lot of time at MD Anderson.

My mom has always taught me to "make fun" wherever I am, so to encourage my husband and try to maintain some sense of normalcy, I am always dreaming up ways to make the hospital more enjoyable. After all, we are fighting for his life, not just a clean PET scan.

Here are five ways we made the hospital more fun:

lindi723.jpgBy Lindi Senez

Our brain tumor journey began in 2006, when my husband Dave first began experiencing double vision. We didn't know it at the time, but we later discovered it was a symptom of hemangiopericytoma, a rare tumor that involves the blood vessels. Dave's was located in his brain.

The next eight years were the greatest challenge Dave and I have ever faced, but he never let the brain tumor stop him. He achieved many accomplishments during his brain tumor treatment: celebrating the birth of our son, graduating from architecture school and founding a benefit race. 

Dave lost his battle on June 30, 2014, but with all the bravery and love that he showed each step of the way, to me, in a way, he won. 

Dave's brave hemangiopericytoma treatment
After his hemangiopericytoma diagnosis, Dave underwent brain surgery and radiation in 2007, but the tumor returned in 2010. He underwent gamma knife radiosurgery that summer and then continued his hemangiopericytoma treatment with more radiation and chemotherapy. With few options left, Dave enrolled in a clinical trial. He underwent a laser ablation, a procedure that had never been done on this type of tumor before.

Through it all, Dave showed limitless bravery. He was never scared. After each new step, he simply asked, "What's next?"

anthony722.jpgIn 2000, Chris Anthony visited MD Anderson for a consultation with Mark Gilbert, M.D., deputy chair of Neuro-Oncology. Chris had been diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme, the most common and most aggressive brain tumor, and had undergone surgery to remove his tumor just two weeks earlier.

Chris had traveled to MD Anderson with wife, Kirsten, and brother, Matt. All three understood the seriousness of his diagnosis and low survival rate of less than two years. They felt Chris could receive the best treatment possible at MD Anderson.

Chris immediately felt comfortable with Dr. Gilbert -- his honesty and candor, balanced with optimism and compassion.

Entering a revolution to cure brain cancer
"I remember Chris asking Dr. Gilbert about the odds and the path forward, both in length of time and quality of life," Matt says.

Dr. Gilbert told them: "We're on an evolution, a path to successful outcomes. Every evolution ultimately has a revolution. That revolution will be a cure for brain cancer, and you're entering into that path."

"They were words of hope without unrealistic expectations, a scientist's perspective delivered in a human way," Matt says.

hannah717.jpgBy Gaylene Meeson

We didn't hesitate to sign our daughter Hannah up for MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital's Camp Star Trails.

When we learned about the camp back in April, Hannah and I had just returned from a weekend at a camp outside Houston, so Hannah knew all about camp and she really wanted to go.  

A few months later, I began packing Hannah's things for camp. That's when it dawned on me that my 6-year-old daughter, who'd been diagnosed with anaplastic medulloblastoma in 2012, would be in someone else's care for six days.

Not only that, but Hannah had become scared and no longer wanted to go to camp. She didn't remember the previous camping trip at all.

Oh no. What had I done? I hated knowing that Hannah would be away from me. What if she soils her underwear? What if she doesn't like the food? What if she doesn't make any friends? All these questions were racing through my head as I tried to pack her bag for every scenario.

Arriving at Camp Star Trails
We arrived at the campgrounds, greeted by a dining hall full of cancer kids, their siblings and volunteers. It was like a sea of faces and noise, but we found the familiar faces of our MD Anderson nurse and child life specialists. After Hannah was registered and I had turned in her medicine, she was ready to meet the other kids in cabin 9.

greene717.jpgWhen Zach Greene was diagnosed with an oligodendroglioma brain tumor in 2010, his younger brother Spencer knew what to expect. Just two years earlier Spencer had just begun his own oligodendroglioma treatment.

There's no genetic explanation behind the brothers' brain tumor diagnosis -- just bad luck, the brothers say, knowing quite well that it's an understatement.

And while they wish it would have happened any other way, the family's shared oligodendroglioma diagnosis has made them closer.

"That's been the silver lining in this mess of a situation," Zach says.

His dad, Brock, agrees.

"We're connected at a level that most people don't know exists," he says. "The love that we feel and express as a family is just different because of that."

Spencer's oligodendroglioma diagnosis
The family's oligodendroglioma journey started in August 2008. That's when Spencer suffered his first seizure, and it wasn't long before he endured another and another. Spencer was 16, traveling with his soccer team and preparing for a doubleheader. The first focal seizure occurred in his right arm during the first game, then a second seizure during the second game. A few months later, he suffered a third.

donnabaumer715.jpgBy Donna Baumer

For years, I suffered with pain, constipation and diarrhea and just accepted it as my norm. That is, until a night of severe pain landed me in the hospital and a CT scan revealed a thickening in my colon. I was sent home with a high-fiber diet to follow and given a follow-up appointment with a gastroenterologist who scheduled a colonoscopy.

When the procedure was over, I woke up in an anesthesia stupor. I heard the doctor standing over me saying, "Likely malignant, surgery, probably chemo, you'll be fine."

What?! Was he really talking to me? I didn't cry, but the flood of tears did come later that day. At first I felt numb and could not believe this was happening to me. The fear of the unknown set in as I began to think about what to expect from surgery and chemo.

I knew I was about to travel down a path of uncertainly. I was frightened, but I can honestly say that I found peace with my situation. I choose to face my fears with determination and strength. This attitude would bode well for me down the road.

I started colon cancer treatment right away, undergoing surgery followed by chemotherapy six weeks later. Nine months after starting my colon cancer treatment, I was declared cancer-free.

Receiving colon cancer treatment at MD Anderson

Two years after I'd been declared cancer-free, a follow-up PET scan revealed a small spot on my liver. I asked my oncologist about possible surgery. He said that no hepatic surgeon would even consider it. I decided to seek a second opinion at MD Anderson.

710saoirse.jpgMelanoma was the last thing on Saoirse Murray's mind when she made her first appointment with a dermatologist at age 17. Prom was around the corner, and she was hoping to have a perfect complexion for the big night.

She never guessed that she'd end up with a skin cancer diagnosis.

Saoirse's melanoma diagnosis and treatment

At her first appointment, the dermatologist found two concerning moles on Saoirse's back. He asked Saoirse if she used tanning beds.

Saoirse nodded. She didn't use a tanning bed often. She already had an olive skin tone. But like she'd mentioned, prom was coming up, and she wanted to look perfect.  She'd only gone to the tanning salon a few times -- just like all her friends.

The doctor removed the two moles. 

A few days later, Saoirse received a phone call from her doctor asking her to come back for another appointment as soon as possible.

"I thought it was weird that they had called me it work," she says. "It was a little alarming, but I had no idea what was coming."

marjane79.jpgBy Logan Carver

Marjane Green might never have found the tumor in her left breast if she hadn't felt a pain in her right breast.

The Houston-area resident wasn't too concerned since she'd had a mammogram just two months earlier. And, she had been dealing with recurring cysts in her breasts for more than 30 years as a result of hormone therapy following a hysterectomy. But this pain was different than anything she'd felt before.

Marjane's right breast was infected, and during her treatment, her doctor decided to biopsy an abnormality in the left. That's when Marjane received her breast cancer diagnosis.

Marjane says the seemingly serendipitous sequence of events was part of a higher plan.

"I did not worry at all," Marjane says.

Her faith allowed her to face breast cancer without fear.

Receiving breast cancer treatment close to home

But the care she received at MD Anderson helped, too.

Marjane knew she needed to take an active role in her treatment from the moment she received her diagnosis. She wanted to have the best doctors and breast cancer treatment options, and she knew she didn't need to leave Houston to find them.

caroline78.jpg

By Jacqueline Hensler

Caroline Deetjen was 37 years old and in peak physical condition when she felt the painful lump in her left breast. For years, she had been running marathons and, after four months of training, she had just completed her first century bicycle ride -- a 100-mile endurance feat. She was young and healthy, so she figured it was nothing. She waited five months before seeing her doctor. 

"I thought it was nothing," she says. Cancer doesn't run in my family so I thought it might go away." 

A mammogram and subsequent biopsy confirmed that Caroline had stage IIA breast cancer.  

Coming to MD Anderson for breast cancer treatment
Making the decision to come to MD Anderson for breast cancer treatment was easy. Caroline's doctor referred her here for breast cancer surgery, and a friend had raved about her experience at MD Anderson. 

ConstanceCharles71.jpgBy Toby Weber

As a senior administrative assistant in Gynecologic Oncology at MD Anderson, Constance Charles knows what cancer patients are going through. After all, she was one not so long ago.

The breast cancer survivor underwent a lumpectomy, right radical mastectomy and full breast reconstruction 10 years ago.

"I know things may look grim, like there's no hope and that you may be at the end of your rope. But keep the faith," she tells cancer patients. "You can really make it ... Look at me. Here I am."

Here's Constance advice for people just starting their cancer journeys:

lindaandgrandma71.jpgBy Linda Ryan

The saying about time being a precious gift has been on my mind since I recently visited with my 101- year-old grandmother. She saw me texting and wondered aloud if that was something she could do. The reason she was interested in having a smartphone was that she said she's bored.

The one thing Nana has is time. Lots of it. Yet, her time also is limited, so I've been thinking about how I can make her time better, more interesting, happier. The answer I came up with is to give her more of my time.

In our busy lives, we often wish our time away to simply want more. My own cervical cancer journey has changed my view of time.

Trading time during cancer treatment
So often we hear people wish there were more hours in the day. More time to do the tasks and chores they need to do. More time to sleep and catch up on the rest they desperately need. My children are a perfect example of this. They don't want to go to bed at a decent hour, but then they don't want to wake up for school. They want more time awake and more time to sleep. 

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