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By Amanda Swennes
MCC facebook.jpg
Our program that connects cancer patients, caregivers and survivors through one-on-one support has a new name. But the mission and motto remain the same: "Sometimes the best help comes from someone who's been there."

Formerly known as Anderson Network, a program of volunteer services, myCancerConnection pairs cancer patients, survivors and caregivers with trained volunteers who've had the same or similar diagnosis, treatment or experience. This one-on-one support program gives cancer patients someone to talk to throughout their cancer journey. 

We recently asked a few myCancerConnection volunteers why our one-on-one program is important to them. Here's what they said.

myCancerConnection brings cancer patients hope and understanding.
"I signed up to volunteer because I was so grateful for the individuals that spoke to me upon my diagnosis. It was so comforting to talk with someone who had been through it. It helped dissipate the fear. I love that someone can call myCancerConnection and get matched by diagnosis. I never know exactly what someone wants to hear or where they are with what they are going through. But I always find it's hope and understanding that become the common ground." -- Lou Russell, colon cancer survivor

Talking to others gave me strength and hope.
"Just knowing there was someone to talk to that knew exactly what I was going through gave me that extra strength and hope I needed to get through the rough times. I will always be thankful for MD Anderson's staff and that one volunteer who took the time to reach out to me." -- Stacie Strebeck, breast cancer survivor


pam.jpgBy Pamela J. Schlembach, M.D.

"I just want a good night's sleep, doctor." This is something I hear very frequently from my cancer patients on our weekly visits.

Insomnia is common in cancer patients as well as the general population. Chronic lack of sleep can lead to a host of medical problems, including chronic fatigue, depression, obesity, diabetes and heart  disease.

Insomnia can be caused by a number of medical conditions, medications, stress, lifestyle and diet. Before assuming all sleep issues are due to medical conditions alone, I frequently run through the following healthy sleep hygiene list with my patients. Many make some of these adjustments, and their sleeping problems vanish.

Rita318.jpgBy Rita Avila

When I was rediagnosed with tongue cancer at age 23, I had to deal with a lot of things most people my age had never considered. But whenever people suggested that I do advance care planning and complete a living will, I almost laughed. I wasn't even old enough to rent a car.

I kept putting it off. But as the date of my tongue cancer surgery crept closer, I decided I didn't want to leave my parents with any questions. It was time to complete the advance care planning forms.

Starting the advance care planning process
I started by emailing my social work counselor at MD Anderson. She gave me some paperwork and told me I could complete them during my upcoming visit to MD Anderson.

A few days later, I told my dad I wanted to add him to my checking and savings accounts. He looked at me like I'd grown two heads. As I expected, he asked why. My response was simple: "Because if anything happens to me, I want you to be able to access my money and pay off any bills in my name," I knew he would take it the best of anyone in my family. What daddy wants to cry in front of his little girl?

A couple weeks later, my dad and I returned to MD Anderson. During the trip, our social work counselor gave my dad my blank Living Will and Medical Power of Attorney forms. These legally binding documents would state my wishes about who would make decisions for me and what types of decisions would be made if I couldn't make them myself.

hagan312.jpgUndergoing surgery soon, or know someone who is? You may have questions about general anesthesia, which is typically used when patients undergo surgery. 


It's also sometimes used for endoscopies and colonoscopies, interventional radiology, and imaging studies, such as CT scans and MRIs. 

General anesthesia is used to keep you comfortable and still during a surgery or procedure. 

We recently spoke with Katherine Hagan, M.D., assistant professor in Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, to learn more. Here's what she had to say.

What do patients need to do to prepare for general anesthesia?
At MD Anderson, all inpatients see a physician assistant or anesthesia provider before surgery. Outpatients see an anesthesiologist, physician assistant, or registered nurse in the Anesthesia Assessment Center. For a small number of outpatient procedures, such as routine colonoscopies or endoscopies in patients without recent medical problems, we may just do a phone interview.

mindfulness.jpgBy Eric Tidline, social work counselor

Coping with cancer isn't easy. So, how do you build the mental strength to cope with everything you're facing? Mindfulness is one thing that may help.

How mindfulness helps

Mindfulness allows us to step outside of our own minds and observe how we think about things. Over time, those who practice mindfulness learn to become less attached to their own thoughts, perceptions and beliefs. People begin to take actions based on the true nature of people and events, rather than how they wish or hope them to be.

By focusing on the details of our experiences, we are better able to understand what is happening in each moment. This new understanding will allow you to spot and avoid negative reactions. Mindfulness also better enables us to see the many ways we can positively respond to our situations. This helps us achieve inner peace and balance.

Studies show that patients who practice mindfulness begin to feel better despite their medical problems. Physical symptoms don't necessarily go away, but that's not the aim of mindfulness. Rather, the goal is to help you find a different perspective and a new way of coping with your illness.

What is mindfulness? And how do I do it?
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on your thoughts, emotions and feelings in the present moment with acceptance and without judgement.


It is one simple coping technique that's been found to reduce stress, boost energy and improve well-being.

While it may sound complicated, mindfulness practices are simple. One easy way to stay mindful is to focus on your breath.

Conquest.JPGWhether you have an upcoming CT scan or are expecting news from your doctor, waiting can cause anxiety, worry and stress. You might have trouble sleeping or feel impatient with your loved ones. All of this is completely normal. Here at MD Anderson, we call that scanxiety.

The good news is there are many ways to deal with scanxiety. To help make the waiting game a little easier, we asked our Facebook community how they cope with the stress or anxiety before an important scan or appointment. Here's what they had to say:

  • Pray. Many of our patients and caregivers said they found comfort in prayer. Because they feel a loss of control, praying allows them do what they can and then let go of those anxious feelings.
  • Have faith and confidence in your care team. Know that our doctors and the rest of your care team will take care of everything. That's their job.
  • Listen to your favorite music. Whether you're in the waiting room, in your car or at home or work, music can help you escape from the realities of cancer, or find the strength and determination to face them head-on.
  • Find humor. Nothing eases tension like laughter.

jaymee225.jpgBy Jaymee Fiskum

I wasn't the only one diagnosed with anaplastic large T cell lymphoma small cell variant (ALCL) in May 2013. My entire family took on my cancer journey as if it was their own.

Because of them, I consider myself lucky -- as weird as it may sound. I have so much support in my life. It motivated me to fight harder. I couldn't let myself down, but I couldn't let all of them down either.

How my family helped me cope with ALCL
Each one of my family members played a huge part in my cancer journey.

After my doctor told me I had ALCL. In September 2013, I began six cycles of chemotherapy, followed by a stem cell transplant. I was very fortunate enough to have my sister as my donor. Who would've thought letting her borrow my clothes all those years would pay off?

jasiarussell220.jpgBy Carol Bryce

Growing up in Jefferson, Texas, Jasia Russell, didn't know anything about physical therapy.
That changed when Russell was 16 and her beloved grandfather suffered an abdominal aneurysm.

"He'd been a farmer and a rancher -- a very active man," she recalls. "Then he had to have both legs amputated above the knees. I thought he'd be bedridden for the rest of his life."
But thanks to physical therapy, Russell's grandfather regained his independence.

"He'd go from riding his power chair or golf cart to mowing the lawn on his four-wheeler. He lived another eight years and had very good quality of life," she says.

When she saw the impact physical therapy can have on a patient, she decided to become a physical therapist.

Preparing for a career at MD Anderson

After earning a bachelor of science in Kinesiology at the University of North Texas in Denton and spending "three years of blizzards" completing a doctorate in physical therapy near Chicago, Russell returned to Texas. She was finishing her final physical therapy rotation at another Houston hospital when something caught her eye.

"I was driving around the medical center and noticed MD Anderson's buildings," she recalls.
"And I thought, 'What an incredible place that would be to work.' "

bobbrigham217.jpgBy Lindsay Lewis

Last month, MD Anderson gained a new leader for our inpatient and outpatient clinical operations. Bob Brigham, our new senior vice president for Hospital and Clinics, is excited about his new role -- and supporting our mission to end cancer.

We recently spoke with Brigham to learn more about him and his plans for improving our patients' experiences at MD Anderson. Here's what he had to say:

What experience do you bring?
I worked at the Mayo Clinic for 36 years. My career path there afforded me the opportunity to develop a diverse set of health care experiences. After starting as a staff nurse, I moved through a number of roles, including nurse manager, operating room director and nursing director, as well as clinic and hospital administration. I worked with patients and staff in many clinical and administrative areas. From 2005 until I started here, I was chief administrative officer and chair of administration at the Jacksonville, Florida, campus, leading Mayo's patient care and non-patient care operations in the southeast.

What inspired you to enter nursing?

When I was in college, my interests and skills leaned toward careers in health care. I was fortunate to have a radiologist friend who was willing to let me spend a January term with him. I saw firsthand many of the different roles within health care. I particularly resonated with one person who was passionate about life, his family and the work he did every day as a nurse. That career hadn't occurred to me, given the few men in nursing in the 1970s, but the thought of entering the field and doing something different excited me.

bentz217.jpgBy Lindsay Lewis and Mindy Loya

Five years ago, Gary Bentz was completing the last of his 34 radiation treatments and his third round of chemotherapy to destroy a tumor at the base of his tongue -- along with the cancer cells that spread to nearby lymph nodes. His cancer was stage 4.

Today, Bentz -- who's cancer-free -- is back at MD Anderson, but for a much different reason. He's one of 28 patient advisors who are volunteering their time to help us shape policies and programs to improve the patient experience.

Why we need patient feedback and involvement
Bentz and the other members of our Patient and Family Advisory Council come to MD Anderson at least once a month to share stories and provide feedback on issues impacting our patients.

And, many of them now serve on committees that previously only included our employees.

"Having a patient at the table with us is very powerful," says John Bingham, vice president for Performance Improvement. His Patient Safety Committee was one of the first to request patient involvement. "It'll accelerate our efforts to keep our patients safer."

Cuchapin216.jpgBy Lindsey Garner

Chris Cuchapin is proud to be one of the first faces patients and their families see when they visit MD Anderson.

As a patient services coordinator in Diagnostic Imaging, Cuchapin checks patients in at the front desk and keeps them updated on the status of their appointments while they wait.

After several of his family members were diagnosed with the disease, he joined MD Anderson to try to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families. Inspired by his family's experiences, he does his best to make our patients feel welcome. You often can find him handing out warm blankets and coffee, and when he has time, strumming on his ukulele.

"I remember my family saying how they appreciated it when a hospital felt more like a home," he says. "I just want to do my best to brighten patients' days and let them know I'm here for them."

The backbone of MD Anderson

Patient services coordinators balance requests from the entire care team, patients and family members.

"They're the backbone of MD Anderson in a lot of ways," says Elizabeth Lottinger, a Human Resources consultant. "They often set the stage for what the patient experience is going to be."

Their responsibilities vary depending upon where they work at MD Anderson. Their duties can include scheduling appointments; entering doctors' orders for medications, tests and procedures; answering patients' scheduling questions submitted to our health information specialists; and responding to non-medical requests.

Often compared to jugglers and air traffic controllers, our patient services coordinators help keep the flow of a clinic or center in check while also directing our employees and our supplies where they need to be.

Scheduling appointments is far more complex than it seems, Neicy Leonard shares. A patient services coordinator in our Colorectal Center, she compares it to playing chess.

Melanie24.jpgBy Melanie Steel

Three years ago, my family began bracing for the battle of our lives. My dad had just been diagnosed with melanoma.

We knew very little about melanoma, so we began to read everything we could in order to know what we were facing. The numbers scared us. The survival rates paralyzed us. All of this was new and frightening. Then, we took a collective deep breath.

As we learned about this ugly disease, we could not stop thinking about two important, life-saving areas of education: melanoma risk factors and the importance of early detection. We realized that if more people knew what makes them more likely to develop melanoma, lives could be saved. We also realized that if more people recognized melanoma symptoms  early, more lives could be saved.

Finding a voice after my dad's melanoma diagnosis

My family was in a unique position. Due to my dad's melanoma diagnosis, we were learning about a disease that previously we had known little about. We were talking with friends, family members and acquaintances who were asking how they could help. These conversations gave us an opportunity to raise awareness and educate others about melanoma. This was a beautiful gem hidden in the midst of our difficulties.

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