10 questions about gynecologic cancers

Each year, approximately 100,000 women are diagnosed with some form of gynecologic cancer: cervical, ovarian, fallopian tube, uterine (also called endometrial cancer), vulvar or vaginal. We spoke with Shannon Westin, M.D., associate professor in Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine and co-leader of MD Anderson’s Ovarian Cancer Moonshot™, to learn more about these diseases. Here’s what she wants every woman to know. What are the most common types of gynecologic cancers? The most prevalent is uterine cancer. Since 2007, there have been about 60,000 new diagnoses each year. The second is ovarian cancer, with about 20,000 diagnoses per year. The third is cervical cancer, with about 10,000 diagnoses per year. Vulvar and vaginal cancers are the rarest, with about 10,000 diagnoses a year between them. The vast majority of cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers are HPV-related. What are some symptoms women should watch for? Ovarian cancer has been called the silent killer because its symptoms are so vague. But there are four main ones to look for: bloating, pelvic/abdominal pain, frequent urination and difficulty eating/feeling full. All of those are very easy to blow off as being something else, so if you experience them daily and they persist for more than a few weeks, see a doctor. For uterine cancer and cervical cancers, post-menopausal bleeding or irregular bleeding are the most common symptoms among women who are still menstruating. For vaginal and vulvar cancers, patients may experience abnormal bleeding or note an abnormal lump or bump. Non-healing ulcers or pain during intercourse can be seen with these tumors as well. Are there any diagnostic tests available? For cervical cancer, there’s the...

Leukemia survivor: How I cope with fear of a recurrence

It’s been six years since I was first told that I had no evidence of acute myeloid leukemia. But thoughts about recurrence still pop into my head from time to time. I don’t think they’ll ever completely disappear, but the fear has lessened with time. Here’s what I’ve learned about coping with these fears since I entered remission. Be mindful of your thoughts I remember the first time I came down with the flu a few months after I’d completed my treatment. Even though I knew it was flu season and everyone around me was sick, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d had a relapse, especially since I’d exhibited many of the same symptoms just prior to my leukemia diagnosis. I set up an appointment my family doctor, who prescribed me some medicine and ran bloodwork to make sure my blood counts were fine. And they were indeed OK. I realized then that I shouldn’t allow a fear of a relapse to consume my mind every time I get sick. Getting sick occasionally is part of life, and if I wanted to resume a normal life, I knew I needed to accept that. Distract yourself from overwhelming thoughts One method I used to cope was distraction. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I tried to direct my attention toward something else. For example, in the beginning, I had trouble sleeping many nights. But I found that watching reruns of my favorite comedy shows pulled me back to the present moment and put a smile back on my face. I particularly liked watching episodes I’d already seen because I could fall...

Two-time breast cancer survivor is grateful for treatment innovations

When Suzanne Callahan first came to MD Anderson in 1997, she was a terrified 38-year-old mother with stage IIIB breast cancer in her left breast. Now, 20 years later, she’s a confident grandmother and two-time survivor. “I wanted to do everything I could to extend my life,” Suzanne says. Her mother died of breast cancer in 1985 at age 68. So when she received her own diagnosis that first time, Suzanne knew every year with her boys, then ages 5 and 9, would be precious. She made an appointment at MD Anderson and was on a plane from Arkansas to Houston within four days. “I wanted desperately to go to a physician who sees and treats people like me all day, every day,” she says.    “Living” during aggressive breast cancer treatments At her first appointment, Suzanne met oncologist James Murray, M.D., and surgeon Kelly Hunt, M.D. Her 7-cm breast cancer tumor was a subtype now known as triple-negative. It’s among the most difficult breast cancers to treat. “Back then, we had limited treatment options for such a large tumor,” Hunt says. Suzanne also had over 20 cancerous lymph nodes. Suzanne had chemotherapy in July 1997, a mastectomy of her left breast in October and then more chemotherapy. The junior high choir director often flew to Houston for 36-hour chemotherapy infusions and back home without missing a day of school. “People in Arkansas thought I was crazy for traveling so far for treatments,” Suzanne says. “But for me, traveling for the best care wasn’t a difficult decision.” “I didn’t spend time dying, I spent time living,” says Suzanne, who...

Throat cancer survivor now singing MD Anderson’s praises

Music has always been a part of James McManus’ life. The middle son in a family of musicians, he was the lead singer of a rock ‘n roll band with his brothers in high school, and continued performing in one form or another throughout adulthood. In the summer of 2015, though, the lifelong baritone feared his days at the microphone were over. James came down with a hoarse throat, and it never really went away. “It got to where I couldn’t sing and then to where I could barely talk,” he says. James saw several doctors close to his home in Tennessee, but they couldn’t even seem to identify the problem, much less resolve it. James was convinced it was something serious, so he couldn’t just drop it. Then he remembered how well he’d done at MD Anderson in 2007, when he’d faced — and overcome — stage III colorectal cancer with Imad Shureiqi, M.D. James decided to give it another try. He called for an appointment. A throat cancer diagnosis At MD Anderson, James met with Stephen Lai, M.D., who provided him with a definitive diagnosis: stage I squamous cell carcinoma of the glottis, or vocal cords. James’ throat cancer was unrelated to his previous colorectal cancer, but he was still concerned. His treatment, under William Morrison, M.D., called for 33 doses of radiation therapy delivered directly to his vocal cords. There was a chance James might never speak — much less sing — again. To give himself the best possible chance of success, James followed his doctors’ orders to the letter, gargling a solution of baking soda,...

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...