Squamous cell carcinoma survivor: How cancer helped me discover a new passion

When I started college, I had a specific vision of where my life was heading – I was going to be an Air Force pilot. I had a full Air Force ROTC scholarship and was selected to join the Euro-NATO Pilot Training Program. Little did I know, that was not where my life was heading. I received a cancer diagnosis at age 21. I’d gone to an ENT specialist because I had lost my voice and couldn’t get it back. I figured it was a sinus issue, so I was shocked when he instead diagnosed me with throat cancer – specifically, squamous cell carcinoma of the vocal cords. In 2001, I underwent a laser resection surgery and radiation therapy in my home state of Oklahoma. Though my treatment was successful, my medical condition disqualified me from the Air Force pilot program. I’ve always been an overachiever, so losing this opportunity made me feel like I’d lost part of my identity. I hated that feeling, so I set a new goal to graduate early from college. I did it, but I still had no career path. I took a job as paralegal until I could figure out what I wanted to do. Turns out, that position helped me discover a new passion: law. A squamous cell carcinoma recurrence Six years later, as I was beginning my career as a lawyer in Kansas City, Missouri, I developed a cough that wouldn’t stop. Then I started coughing up blood. A bronchoscopy revealed that I had squamous cell carcinoma of the trachea, and the cancer was in two different spots. I didn’t want...

How radiation therapy may affect your daily routine

Cancer treatment often requires patients to make changes to their daily routines or lifestyle habits. But just how much do you need to change? Below are my answers to some questions my patients ask about how radiation therapy will impact their lives during treatment. Can I work during treatment? Many patients are able to work during their radiation treatment. Sometimes patients work during the first few weeks of treatment but need to take time off near the end due to side effects. It usually depends on the site of the body being treated, the type of radiation, the dose of radiation and if chemotherapy is also being administered. Ask your doctor how your cancer treatment will impact your daily life, including work.  Can I have sex while undergoing radiation therapy?  Yes, in many cases. It depends on the location of the radiation treatment and your general overall health. Cancer and cancer treatment can affect your self-image, emotional state, physical abilities and sexual interest.  Keep in mind that you must use some type of birth control during radiation if you’re of childbearing age. Generally, we avoid treating patients with radiation therapy during pregnancy because the radiation may post risks to the baby depending on the dose and area of the body we’re treating. Can I drink alcohol while receiving radiation therapy? In general, we recommend you limit alcohol intake during cancer treatment of any kind before, during and after cancer treatment. If you’re undergoing radiation to your head, neck, throat, esophagus or stomach, we ask that you abstain from alcohol since it can cause irritation and be physically uncomfortable.   If...

Total pelvic exenteration survivor: ‘Life is precious. Don’t waste it.’

I’m very seldom sick, so being diagnosed with colorectal cancer and ultimately needing a total pelvic exenteration at age 48 took me by surprise. I started having problems going to the bathroom in the fall of 2015. The constipation went on for two or three weeks, so I did the home remedy thing. But one day, I literally doubled over with stomach pain so bad that I had to leave work and go to an urgent care clinic. The doctor performed a rectal exam and said, “Listen, I hate to give you the bad news, but you’ve got cancer.” My colorectal cancer diagnosis I’ve always been a realist. I believe you have to deal with the facts that are in front of you. So when I was diagnosed with cancer, I just thought, “OK. What’s next? What can be done?” The urgent care doctor told me the tumor was the size of softball, and I needed a colostomy as soon as possible. The tumor could rupture at any time, and if that happened, I could die within a few hours. So I saw a local surgeon, and he performed the procedure on Sept. 19, 2015. I live in northeastern Indiana, and we have a lot of good hospitals fairly close. But my cancer was so advanced and growing so rapidly that even my surgeon wouldn’t remove it. He said it was way above his skill level. He gave me two choices: go to a hospital in New York City or to MD Anderson in Houston. I’m not a city boy, so I said, “Send me to Texas.” Why I...

Glioblastoma patient regains quality of life with Integrative Medicine Center’s help

Bratton Fennell, 53, is one of the top-ranked distance runners for his age group in the Carolinas. During his brain tumor treatment, it turned out that getting moving again was the key to his well-being – both physical and emotional. Bratton’s cancer journey began earlier this year, when he found himself occasionally stumbling while running, and then just walking. In March, he fell and couldn’t pick himself back up. Imaging tests at a local emergency room revealed a growth (later diagnosed as glioblastoma) measuring 7 cm at its widest. “The tumor was too big for any other treatment, so it needed to be taken out,” Bratton says. “My doctor said if I wanted the best surgeons and the best radiation and chemotherapy afterwards, I needed to go to MD Anderson.” Bratton chooses MD Anderson for brain tumor treatment The doctor’s recommendation, combined with family in the Houston area, convinced Bratton that MD Anderson was the right choice. He traveled from his home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to MD Anderson a few days later. The tumor was removed during a craniotomy about a week after that. While Bratton was impressed with MD Anderson and particularly confident in his surgeon, Jeffrey Weinberg, M.D., this period was filled with worry — worry about his children’s financial well-being, worry about being a burden to his loved ones and worry about his quality of life after treatment. After surgery, Bratton started a six-week course of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells. Not only was his mind racing; the treatments left him feeling sluggish and hungover. For the first week...

How the right support helped me through breast cancer

After my double mastectomy in 2002, I vividly remember running on the beach and hearing some teenagers making fun of my child-like figure. Their remarks hurt deeply. Even though I went on to have my breast reconstruction surgery 29 long months later, I remained sensitive about my body image. Still, I thought I could handle all my emotions. Then, when I completed my treatments and my oncologist told me he’d see me again in three months, I felt totally lost and frightened. Three months? What was I supposed to do with myself? I had been safely isolated in MD Anderson’s cocoon of care for over a year — walking the halls, having scans, meeting with my oncologist, surgeon, radiation oncologist and my plastic surgeon. Finally, my oncologist said, “Estelle, what you need right now is not something I can help you with. What you need is to talk with a therapist who can help you to move forward.” Seeking support after cancer treatment Despite my initial hesitation, I agreed to visit MD Anderson’s Psychiatric Oncology Center. It proved to be exactly what I needed. Therapy helped me overcome my what-if fears and taught me to greet each day that comes. I learned to appreciate all the little things– the sunrise, the sunset and the changing of the seasons. My therapist encouraged me to love my body exactly the way it is. That helped me transform my negative experience on the beach into an opportunity to be thankful that I’m still alive and able to run with my two legs, and it gave me the strength to withstand future incidents....