Persistence leads to mom’s early-stage breast cancer diagnosis

Suzanne Moilanen has lived in six countries in the last 30 years. And while she enjoyed living abroad, it also allowed her to get complacent about her health. “When you’re young and you live overseas, you don’t do well-woman exams every year,” she says, “and you kind of worry only about your kids’ health care needs.” Then last summer, after she’d worked her way up to walking/running eight miles every day, her progress started to diminish. “I was running or walking this long distance, but then I’d take three days to recover physically,” she says. “By October, I couldn’t even finish three miles.” Suzanne’s family doctor ordered a battery of tests, including a mammogram. While blood work revealed that low potassium was causing her sudden weakness, a mammogram performed through MD Anderson Cancer Center Breast Care at Memorial Hermann also detected an abnormality in her right breast. Jay R. Parikh, M.D., scheduled a biopsy. A breast cancer diagnosis The biopsy indicated it was benign tissue with a radial scar, but Parikh insisted that she get it checked out by a surgeon. “The surgeon wasn’t too concerned it was cancer, but he also agreed it needed to come out,” she says. So on February 27, Suzanne underwent a partial mastectomy. Three days later, she learned from pathology results that she had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) — the earliest stage of breast cancer. “I’d always known it was a possibility based on my research, but it took me a while to digest the news since it happened after the surgery,” she says. Clinical trial shortens breast cancer treatment When Suzanne...

Two-time ovarian cancer survivor: How the Moon Shots Program helped me

I was in Mexico in the summer of 2013 when I came down with a bad case of diarrhea. That’s a pretty common complaint among travelers, so I figured it was just an intestinal bug. The problem continued off and on for several weeks, even after I returned to the States. I tried to ignore it and just get on with my life, but I’m a middle school teacher, and summer is my break time. I had training and traveling to do. Then I started feeling very bloated. It wasn’t really painful, just extremely uncomfortable — and it was pretty severe. The bloating worried me enough that I finally went to an emergency room. I had a CT scan, and the doctors said I had “ascites,” or large pockets of fluid in my abdomen. They released me without treatment and recommended I see an oncologist. The suggestion that I might have cancer surprised me. Still, I didn’t take it seriously. Instead, I contacted a friend who’s a gastroenterologist. He referred me to an oncologist, too. I was officially diagnosed with high-grade serous ovarian cancer in August 2013. An ovarian cancer diagnosis I lead a pretty healthy lifestyle and had been running marathons for years. So the ovarian cancer diagnosis came as a shock. But my late husband had been treated for melanoma at MD Anderson years earlier, so I knew it was the best place to go. I called and got an appointment with Kathleen Schmeler, M.D., that same week. As part of a new approach that MD Anderson’s taking to ovarian cancer through its Moon Shots Program™, Dr....

Radiation therapy: 11 questions my patients ask

As a radiation oncologist at MD Anderson in The Woodlands, I get a lot of questions from my patients about how radiation therapy will affect them, what side effects they can expect and whether the treatment is safe. Here are my answers to some of their frequently asked questions. Do I need to bring someone with me for each treatment? Unless you feel ill, you can typically drive yourself to treatment. In fact, many patients are able to work full-time during their treatment. When will I start experiencing side effects? Side effects depend on where you receive the radiation therapy, the dose given, whether you also receive chemotherapy and, if so, how much and what type. They usually begin by the second or third week of treatment and may last for several weeks after the final radiation treatment. In rare instances, there are serious side effects. Ask your doctor about the specific side effects that you may encounter and any follow-up questions about how to deal with them. Will I lose my hair? While chemotherapy causes hair loss throughout the body, that’s not the case for radiation therapy. Hair loss is associated with the radiation beam entrance and exit areas. Hair loss can be seen with radiation to the brain, head and neck, as well as the lower pelvis. Hair loss caused by radiation therapy may be temporary or permanent. At lower doses, hair loss is often temporary; at higher doses, hair loss can be permanent.  Am I radioactive? You’re radioactive only if you’re undergoing treatment with a radiation seed implant. If you are hospitalized for this procedure, you’ll...

How my breast cancer journey helped me support my son

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, I remember thinking that if someone in our family had to face this disease, I was glad it was me. Today, it’s not. It’s my precious baby boy. My eight-year-old son, who was five when I was diagnosed, is now facing his own cancer diagnosis. As a parent, it hurts so much to watch your child face this disease. The treatments can be so hard on the body. But Cameron is a fighter, and I know that part of the reason I went through my own battle was so that I could help him through his. A rhabdomyosarcoma diagnosis In September 2016, Cameron was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of soft tissue sarcoma that occurs mostly in children. He had several rounds of chemotherapy at a local hospital to shrink the tumor in his abdomen, then surgery to remove what was left of it on Dec. 16, 2016. He also had a month of proton therapy at MD Anderson’s Proton Therapy Center. Cameron will finish receiving his weekly doses of chemotherapy at the end of July. Cameron has handled cancer the way he handles everything else: sweetly, quietly and bravely. He is one of those people who inspires others with his strength without even realizing it. Sharing what I’ve learned from cancer As a breast cancer survivor, I have a unique perspective on a lot of what Cameron has faced, from surgery to chemotherapy and everything in between. I also know exactly how it feels emotionally to be a cancer patient. That’s why I do everything I can to help...

Second opinion, thyroid cancer surgery finally put survivor in remission

It’s taken nine years, but Paulette Spivey finally can say with confidence that she’s living without any evidence of cancer. “I know that I wouldn’t have gotten well had I not gone to MD Anderson,” she says. “No one else could locate the source of my problem.” Initial thyroid cancer surgery and lymph node removal Paulette’s “problem” was the high level of thyroglobulin she continued to experience. She’d had her thyroid removed in 2008 after she was diagnosed with papillary cell carcinoma, an often slow-growing form of thyroid cancer. She had radioactive iodine twice, and in 2015, a second neck surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes. But she still had cancer. Over the years, Paulette saw four endocrinologists in Arkansas, where she lives. None of them could explain why her blood tumor markers were still detectable. But when a CT scan performed last October showed nodules in her lungs, Paulette became proactive. “My endocrinologist thought that it was a metastasis. His recommendation was that we wait six months and check it again to see if they were bigger,” she recalls. “I just knew I would be crazy if I had agreed to wait six months to find out if it is indeed metastasis.”   A second opinion at MD Anderson Paulette asked her doctor to refer her to MD Anderson for a second opinion. She had friends who’d been treated here and knew of its reputation from them. At Paulette’s first appointment, Maria Cabanillas, M.D., said that the likely reason for the persistently elevated thyroglobulin level was that not all of the thyroid cancer had been removed in 2008,...