How a childhood leukemia and sarcoma diagnosis shaped my career

Before I was diagnosed with cancer in June 1998, I wanted to be a princess, a teacher or a veterinarian. Instead, I became a registered nurse at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital — the place that saved my life. And it’s all because of the outstanding care I received here as a child. Dual diagnosis: granulocytic sarcoma and acute myeloid leukemia My cancer story began the summer after first grade. At the time, my life seemed idyllic: I was learning golf with my dad, earning badges as a Brownie Girl Scout and playing soccer. Little did I know what life had in store for me. One day I was watching TV with my mom, and I mentioned that I could see two television sets. Concerned, she called over a neighbor who was an optometrist and another who was a nurse. They noticed my left eye was crossed inward and told her to get me to a doctor right away. After examining me, my ophthalmologist promptly referred us to a neurologist. Later, he told us he could actually see a tumor pressing against my optic nerve, but the scans ordered by the neurologist confirmed it: I had granulocytic sarcoma — a very rare type of tumor — in my head, as well as acute myeloid leukemia (AML). A unique childhood cancer treatment plan Granulocytic sarcoma is usually found in the abdominal area of adults after they’ve been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, so it was unusual for me to have both at age 7 — and for the tumor to be in my brain. A few days after my diagnosis,...

Skin cancer screening: 5 things your dermatologist wants you to know

At increased risk for skin cancer? You may need regular skin cancer screening exams. These screening exams help find skin cancer early, when the chances of successful treatment are greatest. Here, Anisha Patel, M.D., shares fives things she wants you to know before your skin screening exam.  You’ll be wearing a gown during the skin screening Skin cancer can occur anywhere on your body, even places that don’t get sun exposure. During the screening, your dermatologist will conduct a head-to-toe examination, which will include your scalp, the bottom of your feet and even your genital areas. “A patient’s comfort is very important to us, but we think it’s better to endure a few moments of discomfort than to overlook a suspicious spot. It may just save your life,” Patel says. Avoid wearing makeup and nail polish to your skin screening Come to your skin screening without wearing makeup or nail polish. Because they cover up areas of your skin where cancer can occur, it’s best to avoid these products the day of your exam to ensure your dermatologist can do a thorough screening. “It’s fine to apply products after the screening, but plan to come to see me with clean, bare skin,” Patel says. A machine isn’t involved in a skin screening When walking into the examination room, some patients expect to see a machine, such as those for an MRI or CT scan, to conduct the screening. But that’s not the case. The entire screening is done with your dermatologist’s eyes or with the help of a lighted magnifying glass. Don’t focus on cosmetic concerns MD Anderson specializes in...

What I learned as a stage IV colorectal cancer survivor

My journey to MD Anderson began in November 2012, when I came down with what I thought was a 24-hour stomach flu. My doctor referred me to a gastrointestinal specialist, who prescribed a probiotic. When my upset stomach still hadn’t gone away a month later, he scheduled a colonoscopy. That’s when he discovered a tumor in my intestines so large that he couldn’t complete the procedure. A CT scan confirmed the presence of a tumor in my colon, as well as lesions on my liver. I had stage IV sigmoid adenocarcinoma – colorectal cancer. I was devastated. I wondered how many days or weeks I had left. I also worried about getting everything in order for my wife. But a relative had been treated for cancer successfully at MD Anderson, so my family insisted that I request an appointment there right away. I’m so glad I did. Finding comfort in colorectal cancer treatment at MD Anderson I was still struggling with my late-stage diagnosis when I met Miguel Rodriguez-Bigas, M.D., at MD Anderson. I told him I regretted not having a colonoscopy earlier. He reassured me, saying, “We’re not here to worry about the past. We’re going to work on improving your health now.” I was concerned about travelling between Tucson, Arizona, and Houston for treatments and wanted to continue working as long as I could. My medical team worked together to make a treatment plan that would best address my needs. Along the way, I had numerous CT scans, MRIs, PET scans and other tests. Knowing that my care team was so thorough was a real comfort to...

A stomach cancer survivor’s advice for other patients

When you first come to MD Anderson, you may be so overwhelmed that you have a real sense of urgency when you get here. Maybe you feel like there’s an alien invader in your body, so you want to jump straight into chemo. I understand that desire. I was diagnosed with stomach cancer in July 2005, and I ended up having both my stomach and my esophagus surgically removed. But my advice is to slow down. It took about a month to get everything ready for my stomach surgery. We had to discuss the plan, explore what life was going to be like for me after the surgery and make sure that what we were doing made the most sense — not just for the type of cancer I had, but for my specific cancer. Here’s some more advice that helped me through my stomach cancer journey. Slow down to notice ‘soul-buffering’ places MD Anderson is not just doctors and nurses and needles and tests. It is an entire community that has little soul-buffering places, too. If you slow down, you’ll find a bubbling fountain, an herb garden or a coffee shop around every corner. The sheer size of the place can be overwhelming, I know. I went from a hospital in Atlanta — which was just one building with multiple floors — to a complex of hospital buildings. Learning to navigate MD Anderson takes a lot of effort, but once you do, it can become a place of genuine comfort. So take it one step at a time. You don’t do cancer in one day. It’s a process....

How I survived breast cancer treatment away from home

When my very first mammogram revealed stage IIIC breast cancer, I was dealt the shock of my life. My mother died just seven months after she found out she had lung cancer, and I feared that I, too, would face the same fate. My case was rare for my small town in Mississippi, so my husband and I decided to come to MD Anderson, where we knew the specialized care would give me the best chance at survival. Leaving home for breast cancer treatment was not an easy choice, but I knew my three children, who were all young teenagers at the time, needed me in their lives. My MD Anderson care team actually collaborated with my local oncologist so that I could I receive my chemotherapy back home. But I had to stay in Houston for my mastectomy and eight weeks of radiation therapy. I ended up staying in Houston for three months. To make it work, I relied on my family, friends and community. Here’s how I dealt with receiving breast cancer treatment far away from my family. One day at a time At the beginning of my treatment, I bought a calendar and crossed off each day that passed. A friend said that it would one day help me see how far I’d come and give me the strength to continue. It definitely came handy on the days I felt weak and wanted to give up. Every day, my radiation oncologist, Welela Tereffe, M.D., and my husband reminded me that I was on my journey, not my mother’s.  Creating normalcy for my kids My kids were...