The art of survivorship: A breast cancer survivor’s perspective

People think I’ve gone mad when I tell them that having stage I invasive ductal carcinoma — a type of breast cancer — was really a blessing in disguise. Either that or the chemobrain has completely taken over. But it was through my breast cancer diagnosis in March 2009 that I found my life’s purpose. As a registered nurse, I’ve made a career out of helping people. I’ve been working beside my physician husband, Abdul, for more than 24 years. But my passion is giving back to others through my volunteer work. Today, I am eight years into my breast cancer survivorship, and I consider it an art. I walked that difficult journey with faith, dignity and pride — and I never gave up hope. Ever since, I’ve wanted to encourage other cancer patients to do the same. A desire to give back after breast cancer treatment I knew early on in my cancer journey that I wanted to give back. So, as soon as I finished chemotherapy in July 2010, I started volunteering at MD Anderson in the myCancerConnection Hospitality Center. Every Tuesday morning, I’ve been at the Mays Clinic supporting patients and caregivers by sharing comfort, hope and resources to make their battle a little easier. Over the past seven years, I’ve logged more than 1,000 volunteer hours. I also share hope with patients through myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one program for patients and caregivers. Sometimes, I even share my own story to emphasize how important preventive care is and what a huge difference early detection can make. Staying upbeat during breast cancer treatment Breast cancer also gave...

BRCA1-positive mom chooses mastectomy, breast reconstruction

Linda Phetphongsy is still trying to adjust to life with breast implants, though she welcomes the peace of mind they bring her. “I feel great, and I don’t have to worry as much about getting breast cancer,” she says. The 32-year-old mother of two underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction last year after learning that she has a BRCA1 gene mutation, which puts her at increased risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Linda inherited the BRCA1 gene mutation from her mother, who had cancer three times — breast cancer in 2003, ovarian cancer in 2013, followed by an ovarian cancer recurrence in 2014. Her mom died of ovarian cancer in May 2016. “We lost my mom to cancer when she was in her late 50s, and I don’t want that to happen to my kids,” she says. Taking control of a BRCA1 mutation When Linda’s mom died, she’d already begun talking with Nicole Fleming, M.D., her mother’s doctor at MD Anderson in Sugar Land, about what she could do to reduce her own chances of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Fleming recommended a double mastectomy and eventually a hysterectomy. Linda quickly scheduled up an appointment with breast surgeon Makesha Miggins, M.D., to learn more about her options. “I decided to go ahead and do a mastectomy first after speaking with Dr. Miggins,” she says. “My mother had just passed, so at the time, it felt right. I wanted to do everything I can do to avoid getting cancer.” Linda’s mastectomy In August 2016, Linda underwent a double mastectomy. During the six-hour surgery, Miggins removed nearly all of...

Thyroid cancer survivor finds ways to cope during radioiodine therapy quarantine

Veronika Fitzgerald is still amazed by the events that led up to her papillary thyroid cancer diagnosis. In the fall of 2015, she began experiencing complications from a 2006 gastric band surgery. When she went to her surgeon to discuss her options, he performed a routine physical exam and noticed her thyroid felt a little swollen. “He said, ‘It’s not a big deal; a lot of women have it. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I would go and have it checked,’” she recalls. An ultrasound ordered by her family doctor led to a biopsy, and the results caught both of them by surprise. “My doctor took me in the room, put his hand on my knee and said, ‘It doesn’t look good. You have cancer,’” she says. “I started crying. I was just devastated.” But after both her mother and wife broke down in tears that day, she never cried about her diagnosis again. “I felt that I really had to be strong and handle it because they were so sad,” she says. Thyroid cancer treatment at MD Anderson Veronika called to schedule an appointment at MD Anderson in Sugar Land, which was close to her southwest Houston home. There, she met Steven Weitzman, M.D., and surgeon Mark Zafereo, M.D., for the first time. “Dr. Weitzman and Dr. Zafereo were so comforting,” she says. “They made me feel like everything was going to be OK.” Veronika had her surgery on Jan. 28, 2016. The initial plan was to remove only half of her thyroid, but during the procedure, Dr. Zafereo noticed that the cancer had spread to some nearby...

Abnormal Pap test? What to know about cervical dysplasia

So, you’ve been through the discomfort and awkwardness of your Pap test, and you’ve gotten the unexpected call from your doctor: Your Pap test was abnormal. Now what? We recently spoke with Kathleen Schmeler, M.D., co-leader of MD Anderson’s HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot™, to find out what you should know. Here’s what she had to say. What does it mean when my doctor says I have an abnormal Pap test? An abnormal Pap test result means there are cells on your cervix that don’t look normal under a microscope. This fairly common condition is known as cervical dysplasia, or pre-invasive cervical disease. Does my abnormal Pap test mean I’m going to have cervical cancer? An abnormal Pap test doesn’t mean you have cancer or that you’ll have cancer in the future. In most cases, women with an abnormal Pap test don’t end up developing cervical cancer. But some do have pre-cancer, which is very treatable. What causes an abnormal Pap test? Abnormal cell changes in the cervix are often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Usually, HPV infections clear up on their own. But some HPV strains can cause high-grade dysplasia and several types of cancer, including cervical cancer. Sometimes, abnormal cells are caused by a yeast infection or a bacterial infection, both of which are very treatable. Or, if you’ve already been through menopause, these cell changes may be the result of age. A weakened immune system and HIV can also make you more likely to have an abnormal Pap test. But most women with abnormal Pap test results are perfectly healthy. What’s the difference between low-grade and...

Clinical trial gives recurrent glioblastoma survivor hope

I was a just a young, 20-year-old in college student when the symptoms began. In early November 2005, I started having bad headaches and dizzy spells, and my ears became sensitive to sound. My local physician ordered an MRI and EKG. On Dec. 16, I met with a neurologist to get the results. He told me I had a brain tumor and would need surgery to remove it. Later that afternoon, I met with the surgeon. He explained everything and didn’t seem worried. We scheduled a follow-up appointment for the next week. But just a few days later, I had a grand mal seizure and went to the ER. Once I was stable enough, I was flown by Life Flight to a larger hospital. Sadly, I wasn’t awake – I’m sure the helicopter ride would’ve been fun! Brain tumor diagnosis and a second opinion I had my first brain tumor surgery the next week. I was diagnosed with oligodendroglioma, a type of brain cancer. The first oncologist I saw told me I only had two to five years to live. I was so aggravated. I was 20, and my life hadn’t even started! I was in denial, so we went to MD Anderson for a second opinion. During my first appointment, I learned that I actually had a different type of brain tumor — anaplastic astrocytoma. I completed six weeks of radiation therapy, followed by a new type of chemotherapy called Temodar®, which is now commonly prescribed for brain tumors. I started taking the Temodar® pills once a month for five days at a time in May 2006. I...