Anal cancer survivor: ‘Cancer doesn’t have to define you’

Some people get married. Some have children. Some get divorced. Some get cancer. Nelda Blair believes that while these are all life-changing moments, none of them should become a person’s entire identity. She’s felt this way ever since she found out she had HPV-related anal cancer in February 2011. “I’m a take-charge person, and this diagnosis was not going to rule my life or alter my life for any period of time,” she says. “My attitude was: we’ll take care of this.” Coming to MD Anderson for a second opinion Nelda’s anal cancer was discovered during her first colonoscopy, which she’d put off until age 53. A local oncologist removed the tumor, but after researching her diagnosis some more, she came to MD Anderson to seek a second opinion from Cathy Eng, M.D. “Dr. Eng came walking into the room and took charge,” she says. “She answered my questions, looked me in the eye and there was no messing around. She gave me the truth and nothing but the truth, and I very much appreciated that.” Because Nelda was in otherwise great physical health, Eng wanted her to undergo three months of daily radiation and chemotherapy simultaneously. Nelda was OK with that plan, as long as she could do it at MD Anderson in The Woodlands, where she leads a busy life. Balancing life and anal cancer treatment A successful real estate lawyer, Nelda also operates a local education foundation, runs a private real estate investment company, served as chairwoman of The Woodlands Convention & Visitors Bureau, and is heavily involved in economic development and politics. And she didn’t...

Using my voice during breast cancer treatment

Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, I’d never had a mammogram. I was only 38 at the time, so I hadn’t started getting that annual test yet. But that December, I found a lump in my right breast – a symptom of breast cancer. I was very apprehensive, and saw my gynecologist right away. He thought the lump could be benign, but recommended further testing. So I called Dr. Carisa Le-Petross in Breast Imaging and scheduled a mammogram at MD Anderson, where I work as a radiologist. Accessibility proves no problem for wheelchair-using breast cancer patient One of my biggest concerns before my breast cancer diagnosis was accessibility. In 1998, I sustained a spinal cord injury, which paralyzed me from the middle of my chest down. I’ve used a wheelchair to get around since then, so I worried about how I would navigate the diagnostic equipment effectively. As it turns out, MD Anderson has both wheelchair-accessible mammography machines and wheelchair-accessible stretchers. And imaging technologists stand ready to assist patients with transfers whenever needed. I just rolled up to one of the mammography machines, and the technologists positioned my breast to get the views they needed. They were very kind and considerate, especially given the nature of the procedure. More information, more flexibility in breast cancer treatment As an MD Anderson radiologist myself, I know how to read imaging films. So when I saw the images from my own mammogram, I thought, “Oh, that looks worrisome.” An ultrasound and a core biopsy soon followed. A few days later, Dr. Le-Petross and Dr. Jennifer Litton gave me the...

Q&A: Anaplastic thyroid cancer

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer, it may be hard to find others who’ve received the same diagnosis. That’s because anaplastic thyroid cancer is only diagnosed in about 500 to 800 patients in the United States each year — most age 60 or older. And, because anaplastic thyroid cancer is extremely rare, there’s limited reliable information on this disease. To help, we spoke with Maria E. Cabanillas, M.D. Below, she explains the basics of anaplastic thyroid cancer diagnosis and discusses the latest treatment advances. How is anaplastic thyroid cancer diagnosed? Anaplastic thyroid cancer is typically diagnosed by removing and examining a small sample of a patient’s tissue, known as a biopsy. But because biopsied cells can appear in a variety of shapes and forms, diagnosis can be difficult and often inaccurate. The pathology report may not always use the words “anaplastic thyroid cancer.” If you see another term, such as “undifferentiated,” “dedifferentiated,” “sarcoma of the thyroid,” “sarcomatoid,” “squamous,” “spindle cell” or “giant cell” on the report, you may want to seek a second opinion from an thyroid cancer expert before starting treatment. How is anaplastic thyroid cancer typically treated? When the tumor is isolated to the thyroid gland, we find the most success with surgery. But anaplastic thyroid cancer spreads quickly, and surgery is often not an option. In these cases, the treatment is usually radiation to the neck. It can be administered with chemotherapy to make it more effective. In patients who’ve had surgery, radiation is used to prevent the cancer from returning. In those who haven’t had surgery, radiation is...

Multiple myeloma survivor finds hope, empowerment in clinical trials

Gary Rudman began experiencing severe lower back and leg pain in early 2013, just a few years after he retired from the U.S. Air Force. His doctors thought it was a bulging disc, so they treated him with steroid injections. When the issue still wasn’t resolved a year later, Gary saw a pain management specialist. That doctor thought he had a torn piriformis muscle and ordered an MRI. But the scan revealed Gary actually had a softball-sized tumor in his pelvis. It was a form of cancer called isolated solitary plasmacytoma of the soft tissue, which often precedes multiple myeloma. The search for effective multiple myeloma treatment Gary initially sought treatment near his South Carolina home, but quickly rejected the first recommendation: surgery to remove the tumor. Odds were high that the operation would leave him paralyzed, incontinent or both — and Gary’s surgeon had performed the procedure only once before. “I didn’t want to do that,” Gary says. “It was out of the question.” Gary’s second opinion took him to Atlanta, Georgia. He received two separate rounds of radiation therapy, but it failed to shrink his tumor. At that point, the Air Force veteran began looking for a third option. “The Georgia hematology oncologist said we should just wait and treat it aggressively when it blew up into multiple myeloma,” Gary says. “That answer was not satisfactory.” Webinar expert leads Gary to MD Anderson Then Gary remembered a hematology webinar he’d watched a few months earlier. One of the panelists was Robert Orlowski, M.D., ad interim chair of MD Anderson’s Lymphoma/Myeloma department. Orlowski had shared his email address...

Celebrating life after a cord blood transplant

April 4 is just another day to most people. But to Erika Evans, it’s an important one. This year, it marked the fifth anniversary of the day she had a double umbilical cord blood transplant at MD Anderson for her acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment. And for Erika, the fact that she’s still around for the milestone at all was cause for celebration. “When I was diagnosed, I was given very little hope of survival,” Erika says. “I want people to know it’s possible not just to survive, but to thrive and to live a healthy, wonderful life again.” Spreading awareness about cord blood donations When Erika had her own children about 20 years ago, cord blood banking wasn’t an option. But today, she encourages other expectant parents to donate their babies’ cord blood by sharing her story at Lamaze classes. She also works closely with an international nonprofit dedicated to finding tissue-type matches for blood cancer patients seeking stem cell transplants. “I can’t put into words how grateful I am to the parents who donated their babies’ cord blood,” Erika says. “They didn’t just save my life; they saved an entire family. Because of them, my kids still have their mother, my mom still has her daughter, my sister still has her sibling and my friends still have their buddy.” Erika is also actively cultivating the next generation of cord blood donors in her family. “I can guarantee that my kids will be donating their babies’ cord blood when that day comes,” she says. “Cord blood holds the promise of cures for so many horrific diseases.” Sharing hope...