From caregiver to MD Anderson volunteer

Even while she was undergoing chemotherapy to treat stage IV breast cancer, Pat McWaters was passionate about helping other patients. So, in 2005, she and her husband, Roger, signed up to volunteer with MD Anderson’s one-on-one support program – now called myCancerConnection – and in MD Anderson’s Hospitality Centers. Although Pat’s breast cancer had metastasized to her liver, the couple still made volunteering a priority. “Luckily, it was slow-growing, and treatments were quite effective for a while,” Roger recalls. But by 2012, Pat had become very ill. She died that spring. “She did everything she could and fought hard,” Roger says. “I stopped volunteering for a few months,” Roger says. But he decided to don his blue volunteer jacket again and returned to volunteer at the Hospitality Center. “You get a real sense of personal ministry,” he says. “I feel like I can be supportive, and people appreciate it. It helps me, too.” Connecting with patients and caregivers All myCancerConnection Hospitality Center volunteers are either survivors or caregivers. They empathize with patients and loved ones who stop by the Hospitality Centers, which are located in the Main Building and Mays Clinic. “It’s a good place for patients and caregivers to come between appointments,” Roger says. “There are a lot of good conversations, and it’s a place for people to connect.” Some patients want to talk about doctor’s reports, and sometimes people just want a hug, he says. “People tell us how they are and if they’re up for the next treatment,” Roger says. “We get to visit with people about their cancer journeys. I make it a point to...

Understanding stem cell transplants

A stem cell transplant is often the best option to treat blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, as well as bone marrow failure syndromes like myelodysplastic syndrome. To understand the different types of stem cell transplants and how they work, we spoke with Borje S. Andersson, M.D., Ph.D. Here’s what he had to say. What are stem cells? Bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside our bones, is the factory for blood cells. It creates hematopoietic stem cells that transform into several cell types, including: red blood cells, which carry oxygen to our tissues platelets, which stop bleeding white blood cells, which fight infection Blood cancers multiply uncontrollably, hindering the growth of these cells. A hematopoietic stem cell transplant replaces faulty cells so the body can produce normal, healthy cells again. What are the types of stem cell transplants? Stem cell transplants fall into two categories: autologous and allogeneic. An autologous stem cell transplant uses the patient’s own cells for treatment. We extract blood cells, treat the cancer with high-dose chemotherapy, then place the cells back into the patient. The patient has low blood counts until the replaced cells replenish the patient’s body with healthy cells. An allogeneic stem cell transplant is similar, but we take cells from someone other than the patient. The transplanted cells kill any remaining cancer cells and restore the patient’s immune system. Where do allogeneic stem cell transplant donor cells come from? There are three types of allogeneic stem cell transplants: bone marrow transplants peripheral blood transplants cord blood transplants With a bone marrow transplant, the donor receives general anesthesia, and the...

How a clinical trial gave me my life back after MDS and AML

Five years ago, my spouse and I had settled into our dreamed-of retirement. Although our 28 years as professors at the University of Arizona were rich and rewarding, retirement was much better. But on Feb. 6, 2012, I was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood cancer. Because I was in my early 70s, a bone marrow transplant wasn’t my best option. Instead, I received chemo infusions for seven days every 28 days to improve my bone marrow and blood cell function. But after nearly 3 1/2 years of this, I learned the chemo was no longer working. A subsequent bone marrow biopsy demonstrated progression of my MDS, with the identification of an IDH1 mutation.     I sought a second opinion and got a grim prognosis. The oncologist gave me only five to seven months to live. He said I needed to find a clinical trial soon. Choosing a clinical trial at MD Anderson During my search, I learned about a Phase II clinical trial at MD Anderson using an experimental drug called AG120. About a week after I applied, Courtney DiNardo, M.D., asked me to travel from my home in Tucson for testing. Between MD Anderson’s huge campus and the battery of medical tests, our first visit was overwhelming. Yet, when Dr. DiNardo entered the room, she immediately made us feel like we were long-time patients or even friends. She was so cool, young and confident. Only 24 hours after my spouse and I returned home, Dr. DiNardo called and asked us to return right away. We canceled our holiday plans, packed our motorcoach and arrived in Houston...

Why I’m taking tamoxifen to avoid breast cancer

My family is no stranger to cancer. In 2005, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and in 2006, my older sister faced a diagnosis of lobular breast cancer.  Although both lived in Florida, I insisted they come to Houston to be treated at MD Anderson. I wanted the best possible outcome for my precious family, and I felt that MD Anderson was an integral part of that plan. As a registered nurse and the caregiver for my mother and sister, I was continually impressed with the medical care they received at MD Anderson, as well as the extraordinary compassion and attention of the staff members. Then, in 2006, I became a patient at MD Anderson. Choosing MD Anderson for breast cancer screening On a routine visit to MD Anderson with my sister, I mentioned to her oncologist that I’d noticed an unusual discharge from my nipple. She advised me to make an appointment immediately to see Therese Bevers, M.D., in the Cancer Prevention Center.  When a world-class oncologist makes such a strong recommendation, I heed their advice.  My diagnostic testing and evaluation with Dr. Bevers turned out to be nothing serious. But based on my experiences and the specialized expertise of the radiologists, I decided to begin getting routine mammograms at MD Anderson. In 2012, my mammogram showed an area that necessitated a biopsy. Fortunately, the biopsy came back normal, but three years later, Dr. Bevers noted a suspicious area in the opposite breast. A second biopsy showed abnormal cellular changes, or atypical hyperplasia, but not cancer. At that point, I began to accept that I had an...

Childhood brain tumor survivor dreams of curing cancer

San Antonio resident Tony Castro was only seven years old when he started showing the first signs of a childhood brain tumor. He began feeling nauseated in Nov. 2013, and even vomited occasionally. But because it was cold and flu season, the thought of cancer never entered his mother’s mind. “Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize it, and I took it really hard,” Lilliana Castro says. “I’m an ICU nurse, and I just beat myself up because I didn’t pick up on it. But he didn’t have any neurological symptoms.” An ependymoma diagnosis Lilliana took her son to a pediatrician, who diagnosed him with a viral infection. He was told to get rest and drink plenty of fluids. But he didn’t get better. Over the next several months, Tony became tired frequently and he slept a lot more than usual. He was also much less physically active, which was strange for a boy normally so passionate about mixed martial arts. In May 2014, Tony began suffering from headaches, too, so his mother took him back to the doctor. A brain scan finally revealed the cause: a childhood brain tumor, or more specifically, stage III anaplastic ependymoma. “I didn’t eat, and I didn’t sleep,” Lilliana says of the days following her son’s diagnosis. “I was crying all night and all day. I kept asking myself, ‘Why?’ I was put here to help people, to get them better, and here is my child with a prognosis that I know as a nurse is really, really bad. All I kept thinking about was death.” The road to MD Anderson and healing Tony had surgery...