Metastatic breast cancer survivor: Living with ‘realistic optimism’

As a metastatic breast cancer survivor, I participate in a lot of support groups. I’m probably active in at least five or six on Facebook alone. The people I’m closest to are in the “Stage IV Under 40” and the “Pregnant or Breastfeeding with Cancer” communities. One of the hardest parts of having metastatic — or stage IV — cancer is losing friends in those support groups. And since I was diagnosed in October 2016, I’ve had more close friends from there die than I did in my entire 32 years before that. In fact, the very first person I connected with — who was diagnosed at the same time I was — passed away in April. That was really, really difficult. But I try not to get discouraged or let it affect my perception of the disease. Because the way I see it, everybody’s cancer experience is different. My story is not my friends’ who have passed. They had their own stories. My story is my story. And it is unique to me. ‘Realistic optimism’ defined: enjoying the time we have The hardest part of having cancer has been knowing I have two genetic mutations — BRCA2 and CHEK2 — that I might’ve passed down to my kids. My understanding is it’s rare to have one, but almost unheard of to have two. And my kids have a 50% chance of inheriting each one from me. We haven’t had the kids tested yet. Our pediatrician said there’s no reason to until they’re older. So that’s for further down the road. I just hate that that might be something they’re...

How to build resiliency and move forward

The couch was Janice Simon’s refuge. Overwhelmed and exhausted, the comforting cushions and a healthy dose of HGTV temporarily kept the personal catastrophes at bay. Within a few months, Simon lost her father, a tropical storm caused major damage to her home and she found out she had an autoimmune disease. “I really thought I was going to lose my mind,” says Simon, a project director at MD Anderson. But she had resiliency. It’s what got her off the couch to accomplish at least one thing each day. And gradually got her to a point where she began looking forward to the next day. Embrace a different mindset “Resiliency is a mindset that helps people persevere during difficult situations and bounce back,” says Mark Berg, director of MD Anderson’s Employee Assistance Program. “For example, if someone asks me if my glass is half full or half empty, I tell them it’s refillable.” According to Simon and Berg, building that resilient mindset begins before a crisis, whether that’s a cancer diagnosis, a treatment setback, storm damage, the loss of a loved one, or something else. Focus on one task at a time A year before Simon found herself in the midst of her own crisis, she watched The University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven give a powerful commencement address at The University of Texas at Austin about the lessons he learned during six months of grueling Navy Seal training. “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day,” McRaven says. “It will give you a small sense of pride and will encourage you...

For some spinal tumor and breast cancer patients, too hot or too cold is just right

Surgeons at MD Anderson are using extreme heat and cold as their weapons against some forms of cancer. They’re finding that the minimally invasive treatments are working as well as, if not better than, standard cancer treatments for many patients. Recovery is dramatically quicker. Quality of life is better. Patients are more satisfied. Turning up the heat on spinal cord tumors MD Anderson patients with certain metastatic spine tumors are benefiting from the work of Claudio Tatsui, M.D., a spine surgery specialist in our Brain and Spine Center. Instead of performing a standard surgery by making a large skin incision with extensive muscle dissection and bone removal, Tatsui inserts a small laser probe – about the size of a pencil lead –into the tumor. Once in place, intense heat scorches the cancer cells. A specially equipped MRI, located in the same operating room, allows Tatsui to precisely control where the treatment is delivered. This protects nearby vital organs and immediately verifies that the tumor has been destroyed. “We use the heat to kill the cancer cells, and the MRI mapping allows us to precisely apply the laser only inside the tumor, protecting the spinal cord and nerves,” Tatsui says. “Recovery from this procedure is very quick – a day or two rather than weeks, which allows patients to resume their chemotherapy quicker as well.” The procedure, called laser interstitial thermal therapy (LITT), has been traditionally used at MD Anderson to treat hard-to-reach brain tumors. Tatsui has expanded its use to include for the first time treatment of spinal metastasis with spinal cord compression. He has adapted some of the...

5 things we learned from our daughter’s rotationplasty

In September 2014, when she was just eight years old, our daughter Elise was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. It was in her right leg. Part of her treatment involved a surgery called a “rotationplasty,” which my husband and I had never even heard of prior to coming to MD Anderson. Here are five lessons we’ve learned since then — about rotationplasties, sarcoma and life in general. Realize kids see things differently Initially, we assumed our only surgical options were limb salvage (in which diseased bone is replaced with a man-made implant, a donor bone, or a combination of the two) or amputation. We didn’t think limb salvage was the right choice for Elise, so we prepared her to have an above-the-knee amputation. But when we met with Dr. Valerae Lewis, she told us about a third option: rotationplasty. Essentially, it’s where you cut somebody’s leg in half, remove the cancerous part, and put what’s left on backwards, so the ankle functions like a new knee. Dr. Lewis showed us a video of other children who’d had the procedure, and they could still do all of the things they’d done before. One was snowboarding, and another was a Paralympic high jumper. Elise looked at the video and very casually said, “Yeah, that’s what I want.” Today, Elise’s attitude hasn’t changed. Our daughter knows she’s great just the way she is. And if you don’t like her leg or it scares you, that’s your problem. She sees herself as a kid who just happens to have had a rotationplasty, rather than a “rotationplasty kid.” It’s a subtle...

The doctor behind our Healthy Heart Program

Susan Gilchrist, M.D., loves to take on a challenge and to build things. Her latest passion is building a program that helps cancer patients return to, or even exceed, their levels of heart health prior to diagnosis. A new twist on her efforts is offering to play tennis with patients. It’s a game Gilchrist knows very well. The Huntsville, Alabama, native started playing tennis at age 9. “My dad was taking tennis lessons and invited me to join him,” Gilchrist says. “I quickly fell in love with the sport and started playing every day when my coach said that’s what my idol, Billie Jean King, did.” As a teen, she received scholarship offers from major universities around the country. She accepted the one from The University of Texas at Austin (UT). Road to a national championship During college, Gilchrist was a four-time All-American in singles and doubles and a three-time Southwest Conference Player of the Year. She led the team that won four straight conference titles and, in 1993, the national championship. Gilchrist had set the bar even higher for herself. She wanted to be the best tennis player in the world. But in her last collegiate tournament, she tore her rotator cuff. While she was able to play professional tennis briefly, the injury limited the next stage of her career. “I got to play in the U.S. Open and the French Open and compete against some of the world’s greatest players, including Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver, but the injury wasn’t going to allow me to reach my goal, so I decided it was time to move on,”...