Acute lymphocytic leukemia survivor remains ‘a fighter, not a quitter’

When Claudia Pichardo was a child, one of her many doctors told her she was a fighter, not a quitter. “Ever since then, that’s been my motto,” she says. In fact, she’s relied on it throughout her life. An acute lymphocytic leukemia diagnosis Claudia’s cancer journey started at age four, when she was diagnosed with anemia, started bruising easily and began running a fever. Her mother took her to their local hospital, where a series of tests eventually brought the diagnosis: acute lymphocytic leukemia. The doctors immediately referred the family to MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, where Claudia underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, along with several painful bone marrow biopsies and spinal taps. After four years of treatment, she went into remission. Claudia’s acute lymphocytic leukemia recurrence That was a short-lived break, though. Just two years later, at age 10, Claudia got what she thought was her first period. It lasted for more than two months. Scared and dreading the idea of going back to the hospital, she hid what was happening from her family. When her mother finally found out, she brought Claudia back to MD Anderson, where they got more difficult news. “They sat my mom and me down and said that it was a tumor that was spreading all over my body and that they had to do emergency surgery. If I had come in sooner, they would have just treated it with radiation and chemotherapy.” More radiation and surgery followed the surgery. This was perhaps the toughest time of Claudia’s treatment. She was, she admits, not the most cooperative patient. More than...

How MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program is working to end cancer through prevention

You’ve probably heard about MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program. But what is it? We asked Ernest Hawk, M.D., co-director of the Cancer Prevention and Control Platform and co-leader of the Colorectal Cancer Moon Shot, to tell us about the program and how prevention plays a role. Here’s what he told us. What is MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program? Our Moon Shots Program is about accelerating the translation of clinical and basic science discoveries into medical practice. This helps us improve patient care and outcomes, from improved delivery of prevention and screening tests, to more tailored treatments and cancer survivorship services. We also want to improve community health. We’re working on influencing positive changes in public policy, education and delivery of community-based health care. How is MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program different from the National Cancer Moonshot? MD Anderson launched our Moon Shots Program in Sept. 2012. The National Cancer Moonshot, which was announced in Jan. 2016, has a similar goal: to dramatically accelerate efforts to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. However, the national effort is pursuing this goal by building and enhancing a national infrastructure and clinical and research networks to drive research and improve cancer care, as well as patient outcomes. What are the benefits of working to prevent cancer? Prevention offers the most cost-effective, long-term strategy to address the cancer burden. We know that at least 30-50% of all cancer deaths in the U.S. can be avoided through lifestyle changes that individuals and communities can make today. These include maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco, practicing sun safety, getting the HPV...

Lung cancer survivor credits clinical trial for life

Georgia Dominick’s journey to MD Anderson began with unusual chest pains on what had begun as a normal August day in 2014. “It was very strange,” she says. “It started kind of near my heart, and felt like when I had pleurisy, which I’ve had a couple of times because I also have asthma. But I went to work that day feeling perfect, and it just kept getting worse and worse.” Georgia went to see her local internist immediately. He sent her to a pulmonologist, who did a bronchoscopy. The pulmonologist saw something suspicious and performed a biopsy. He also referred Georgia to an oncologist, who did a more complicated scoping procedure while she was under anesthesia. The results revealed she had stage IV metastatic non-small-cell lung carcinoma. “Honestly, I think God sent me to the doctor that day,” Georgia says, “because lung cancer doesn’t usually hurt like that.” Seeking a second opinion After Georgia’s original lung cancer diagnosis, she got more shocking news: her oncologist told her that she had only a year left to live. “I did not care for that prognosis,” Georgia says. So, Georgia came to MD Anderson on the advice of a colleague. Here, she met with Frank Fossella, M.D., and John V. Heymach, M.D., Ph.D., and underwent additional diagnostic testing to better assess her cancer. “I was diagnosed in mid-August, and I was being seen at MD Anderson by mid-September,” Georgia recalls. “It was very easy.” Exploring clinical trials at MD Anderson Once here, Georgia was asked right away to consider an immunotherapy clinical trial for her exact type of cancer. In October,...

Throat cancer survivor chooses clinical trial to ‘help someone else’

Chuck Caldwell was in Europe with his wife in September 2015 when his throat started bothering him. At the time, he chalked up the soreness to allergies or drainage and didn’t give it much thought. But when Chuck got back to Houston later that year, he started feeling lightheaded, and the pain in his throat began radiating up into his ear. A few days before Christmas, Chuck finally saw his doctor, who used a scope to examine him. The news was not good. “I asked him if it was throat cancer, and he was almost positive it was,” Chuck says. “But he also thought it was fixable, and said he was going to refer me to the No. 1 guy in the U.S.: his brother.” Choosing a clinical trial to help others “That guy” turned out to be MD Anderson’s Randal Weber, M.D., and Chuck got an appointment with him during the first week of 2016. Weber confirmed the throat cancer diagnosis and recommended a treatment plan of radiation and chemotherapy. G. Brandon Gunn, M.D., Chuck’s radiation oncologist, asked if he would consider a proton therapy clinical trial. The 77-year-old didn’t hesitate. “It sounds kind of Pollyanna, but if it will help someone else down the line, I would always do it,” Chuck says. “It’s worth it and a small price to pay.” A risk that paid off Chuck’s only real concern was the possibility of not receiving proton therapy. As a clinical trial participant, Chuck knew that a computer would randomly determine whether he’d receive standard radiation or proton therapy, and he really wanted the latter. “My wife and...

Clinical trials give hope to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia survivor

George Miller is an athlete and a die-hard marathon runner, so he was shocked when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008. “I remember thinking, ‘There’s gotta be a mistake,’” George says. “‘I’m too healthy to have cancer.’” A swollen lymph node and some occasional spells of fatigue were his only real non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma symptoms, but his general practitioner assured him they were probably nothing. Two months and a course of antibiotics later, the swelling was still there. George’s doctor ordered a needle biopsy. A non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis George was halfway through an eight-mile run the next day when his doctor called him with the results: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A second biopsy confirmed the diagnosis. “That was a shocker,” George says. “Your whole world is flipped upside-down, and you wonder what’s next.” Choosing a clinical trial ‘to kill cancer’ George’s girlfriend, a Houston native, urged him to get to MD Anderson. Within a few days of requesting an appointment, he was making the 200-mile drive from San Antonio to meet with Felipe Samaniego, M.D., whom he affectionately calls “Dr. Sam.” Once here, George immediately felt that he’d made the right decision. “I just had this feeling of peace come over me,” he says. “Something in my spirit told me, ‘This is the place you belong.’” After discussing his options, George enrolled in a Phase II clinical trial under Samaniego. The trial involved a new combination of medicines: a chemo drug called Revlimid (lenalidomide) and an immunotherapy drug called Rituxin (rituximab). Immunotherapy harnesses the body’s own natural defense system to fight cancer.  “I didn’t want to do traditional treatment, because...