What my breast cancer diagnosis taught me

When you receive a cancer diagnosis, you quickly learn just how precious life is. Almost seven years ago, I learned I had stage IIIC, HER2-positive breast cancer. My very first mammogram revealed a large tumor in my right breast, just five days before my 41st birthday. Because my mother died of lung cancer at age 48, my husband and I felt like time was of the essence. We immediately packed up and headed to MD Anderson from Meridian, Mississippi. My breast cancer treatment My MD Anderson doctors put together a breast cancer treatment plan that included chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy and then radiation. I agreed to try a new chemotherapy cocktail, and I was able to complete it at home so that I could be close to my three children, who were young teenagers at the time. Afterwards, I came to MD Anderson for the mastectomy. While recovering from the surgery, I developed a staph infection, which set my treatment schedule back by more than a month. Despite the setback, my husband and I had hoped that I’d be able to get my radiation treatments back home. But just before we left for the airport to head back to Mississippi, my radiation oncologist, Welela Tereffe, M.D., called and asked us to come back to MD Anderson.  Why I received my radiation therapy at MD Anderson Dr. Tereffe explained that my type of breast cancer was aggressive and that the radiation machine at my local oncologist’s office was used to treat all patients and all types of cancer. However, the radiation machines used at MD Anderson’s Nellie B. Connally Breast Center were specifically for breast cancer,...

APOLLO immunotherapy clinical trial takes aim at cancer’s secrets

When Nancy Pinkston’s melanoma crept back, taking up residence in lymph nodes under her right arm, she and her oncologist in Dallas discussed her options. Surgery is standard of care for her stage III melanoma. About 70% of patients who have surgery for that stage end up having a relapse. “My oncologist knew about a clinical trial at MD Anderson that might be a good fit,” Nancy says. “She knew Dr. Hussein Tawbi and contacted him the day my scans came back.” Within days, Nancy was in Houston meeting Tawbi and her surgeon, Jennifer Wargo, M.D. Nancy enrolled in a novel immunotherapy trial, which studies pre-surgical treatment with a drug that’s currently approved for stage IV metastatic melanoma. The trial, co-led by Wargo and Rodabe Amaria, M.D., involves pre- and post-surgical treatment with a form of immunotherapy called immune checkpoint blockade, which frees the immune system to attack cancer, rather than attacking cancer directly. Immunotherapy clinical trial yields no evidence of disease For Nancy, surgery followed four rounds of treatment with nivolumab (Opdivo). After her surgery in May, Nancy got the good news from Wargo: “All she found at surgery was dead tissue and the biopsy confirmed the good news – no evidence of disease.” Clinical trial participants like Nancy are helping Wargo and her colleagues address a vital question: Why do these immunotherapy drugs work well for some patients, like Nancy, and briefly or not at all for others? Biopsies before, during, after treatment Nancy agreed to repeat biopsies during her melanoma treatment, beyond the usual pretreatment biopsy. Wargo is a leader of an effort to employ deep...

Acoustic neuroma, melanoma survivor spreads hope, positivity

Even when Shannon Long found out that she had an acoustic neuroma, a type of benign brain tumor, her gratitude never wavered. “I was so thankful that it was me and not somebody else in my family,” she says. Shannon’s ear had felt stopped up for months, but she didn’t think much of it until she picked up her work phone one day in 2013 and couldn’t hear the dial tone. An MRI showed a large brain tumor was pressing against her brain stem. It had caused 60% hearing loss in her right ear and was impairing her balance. Choosing MD Anderson for acoustic neuroma surgery “I went to a bunch of different doctors, but I felt very uneasy about my surgery options,” she says. That’s when the College Station, Texas, resident decided to look up experts at MD Anderson and found Franco DeMonte, M.D. “When I went to Dr. DeMonte, I asked, ‘How many cases of facial paralysis have you had and what are my chances for that?’” she says. “Compared to what I’d heard from other surgeons, his numbers were miniscule, and I found such comfort in that.” Spreading hope and kindness In September 2013, Shannon underwent her acoustic neuroma surgery. “What concerned me was thinking about my friends and family sitting for 10-and-a-half hours and waiting and worrying about me,” she says. “I wanted to give my daughter and her two best friends something to get the focus off of me and think about other...

After thyroid cancer diagnosis, survivor reprioritizes his health

Growing up in Lebanon, good health came easily to Vartkes Taktajian. Running, soccer and basketball filled many of the natural athlete’s hours. The husband and father of two felt robust until 1987, when he began experiencing a sharp pain in his neck and trouble breathing. By that time, Vartkes had been living in Houston and working for a local refinery for 13 years. Assuming the pain and breathing troubles were due to a bad cold, Vartkes’ doctor prescribed cold medicine. “When I was shaving a few days after the appointment, I saw an egg-shaped bump in my lower neck,” he says. Vartkes went back to the doctor, who said he had a goiter or a thyroid nodule, and told him he needed surgery. Prioritizing his health “My outlook on health changed after that,” Vartkes says. “I never smoked or drank, but I realized I needed to be more purposeful about my treatment. I decided to always put my health first.” In June 1987, after seeking a second opinion, Vartkes underwent an operation to remove the growth. But the surgeon stopped mid-procedure after discovering he couldn’t remove the tumor without significantly affecting the trachea or surrounding tissues. He told Vartkes’ family that the tumor was pressing on the windpipe, and that Vartkes had about six months to live. “That’s when my family said, ‘We want to move him to MD Anderson,’” says Vartkes, who had a cousin and a friend who worked here at the time. Vartkes’ anaplastic thyroid cancer treatment At MD Anderson, his doctor conducted a biopsy and gave Vartkes the news: he had stage IV anaplastic carcinoma...

Spotlight on our surgical technologists

The first time Anthony Palmer assisted on an intradural spinal tumor surgery, the spinal nerves looked like fiber-optic cables, he thought. The delicate operation went against everything he had been taught about spinal surgeries. He had supported surgeons performing procedures to stabilize the spinal column in the past, but the procedures never involved touching the spinal cord itself. The risk of cord or nerve damage was too high. After joining MD Anderson as a surgical technologist, Palmer had a courtside seat to a neurosurgeon doing just that – venturing into the spinal column to remove a cancerous tumor. “It was so fascinating,” Palmer says, remembering the intradual tumor case as one of his first “wow” moments at MD Anderson. “I thought that was just the best ever.” An integral member of the surgery team Once an operation is underway, the surgical tech (also called a scrub tech, or scrub for short) typically is the only member of the surgical team permitted in the sterile field at the patient’s bedside with the surgeon and any residents or fellows. The scrub tech maintains a clear line-of-sight with the surgeon and anticipates the surgeon’s next move. With experience, the scrub will pass the correct instrument or supply without the surgeon even having to ask. “It’s like they’re making music,” says Lystra Swift, perioperative nursing director. “The surgical tech’s ability to anticipate the surgeon’s next move is huge.” Dennis Veals, a senior surgical tech who’s been here more than 20 years, not only knows the names of the complex instruments used by neuro and orthopaedic surgeons; he’s also familiar with the extraordinary procedures...