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,”...

Immunotherapy clinical trial gives four-time skin cancer survivor another chance

As a child growing up in the 1950s, Dean Potter spent a great deal of time outdoors working on his family’s Rhode Island farm, playing at the beach and sailing on the bay. But he didn’t use sunscreen, because the product was still in its infancy back then. “In those days, you put baby oil on to get the first good burn of the season, and then tanned the rest of the summer,” Dean says. “We didn’t know any better.” So, when Dean was diagnosed with skin cancer 50 years later, it didn’t really come as a surprise. During a routine exam in 2009, his internist noticed a lesion on his chest that wasn’t healing. She told him to get it checked out. It turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma. “I wasn’t shocked,” Dean says. Squamous cell carcinoma returns A dermatologist removed Dean’s lesion twice. And when a new lesion reappeared right above the original location just a year later, the dermatologist removed that, too. Dean remained cancer-free for the next four years. Then he started experiencing stiffness in his right shoulder. “I played a lot of tennis at the time, so I assumed it was related to that,” Dean says. An X-ray ruled out a torn rotator cuff, so Dean’s orthopedist prescribed physical therapy. The exercises seemed to help, and his range of motion improved. But during Dean’s last session, the physical therapist noticed a lump in his right armpit and urged him to get it checked out. “I’d been aware of it for several months, but it was just like the harmless fatty lump I had...

Cervical cancer survivor: Why I support the HPV vaccine

As a nurse, I’m a firm believer in vaccines. And that’s even truer now that I’m a survivor of cervical cancer, which is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). For years, I’d heard that most people my age had already been exposed to HPV, and I wondered how it might affect me. Still, I’d never had any problems, so I figured I was lucky. Then, in May 2010, a routine Pap test came back abnormal, and everything changed. I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 45. Additional testing showed that it was caused by HPV. How my HPV-related cervical cancer diagnosis affected my son My HPV-related cervical cancer diagnosis was particularly hard on my son, who was only 15 at the time. My daughter had just graduated from college and lived far away, so it was just him and his dad at home in our small southeast Kansas town while I was in Houston for treatment. My son tried to be tough, but having a mom with cancer is a big deal. It was a rough year for him. It wasn’t until recently that he shared how angry he’d been with me. He said he knows now that it was misdirected, but that he had to be mad at someone and I was it. I understood, but I also told him he was lucky. When I was his age, we didn’t even know what HPV was, much less how it was transmitted, and a vaccine wasn’t available yet. Today, there’s a vaccine for HPV, so neither he nor any of his friends will have to go through what...

Stage IV breast cancer survivor: Look at your family history

Everyone on my father’s side of the family has died of cancer — my dad of prostate cancer, my grandpa of lung cancer, and my grandma of kidney cancer. So I always suspected I would get it someday, too. Still, it came as a shock when I was diagnosed with a type of breast cancer called infiltrating ductal adenocarcinoma last fall. I started feeling a lump in my left breast while nursing my son in July. I thought it was just a cyst, but even after I began weaning Braxon in October, it didn’t go away. In fact, the lump seemed to be getting bigger, so I called my gynecologist. Because the lump wasn’t hard, my doctor didn’t think it was anything bad initially. But he sent me for a mammogram and an ultrasound anyway. After looking at the scans, he ordered a biopsy. The lump turned out to be cancerous. My stage IV breast cancer diagnosis I work for Jason’s Deli, and we’ve been fundraising for MD Anderson for a few years, so I knew that’s where I wanted to go for my breast cancer treatment. I made an appointment right away at MD Anderson in Katy, because it’s the location closest to my home in Kyle, Texas. A PET scan there revealed that the cancer had already spread to my pelvis and spine. I had stage IV breast cancer. I don’t think I really understood what those words meant when I first heard them. But once I did, I was terrified. I was only 32. And I wanted to see my kids grow up and find out...

Cancer pain management brings patients relief

For 16 years, Rose Trapolino had a hard time walking because of the pain and tingling in her feet. The breast cancer survivor suffered from peripheral neuropathy – pain caused by nerve damage – that resulted from chemotherapy. Trapolino tried medications and other treatments to reduce the pain in her feet, but nothing worked. She had plenty of company. During the first month of chemotherapy, this kind of pain occurs 68% of the time. Traditionally these patients have been treated with opioids or narcotics, along with medications that weren’t developed for cancer pain but that help with its management, such as anti-seizure medications and antidepressants. But these medications don’t always relieve the pain, says Salahadin Abdi, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Pain Medicine. They also can have side effects and be addictive. Innovative cancer pain therapy brings positive results About 18 months ago, Abdi began treating neuropathy patients using scrambler therapy, which involves placing electrodes around the areas of numbness and pain. A “scrambler” machine connected to the electrodes sends normal impulses to the brain from the affected area so the brain perceives them as normal sensations instead of pain. Patients participate in 45 minute sessions for five to 10 days. “Our neuropathy patients’ preliminary experiences have been promising,” Abdi says. “Not only did they report less pain, they also regained sensation. And most importantly, their quality of life improved.” Trapolino started with the scrambler therapy machine and saw a difference after the second session. After the third session, the pain was gone, and she started feeling her feet again. “I was in constant pain. The neuropathy affected everything,” Trapolino...