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...

Metastatic melanoma survivor: ‘Coming back to MD Anderson is a great feeling’

In May 2016, Victor Barreiro learned his melanoma, originally treated in his hometown of Mexico City in 2014, had returned and spread throughout his body. There were growths in his lungs, liver, spleen and brain – a total of 15 separate spots where cancer had spread, or metastasized. Today, after metastatic melanoma treatment at MD Anderson, most of those growths are gone. The few that remain are just a fraction of their original sizes and aren’t growing. Choosing MD Anderson for brain tumor surgery and metastatic melanoma treatment When Victor found out his melanoma had spread, his doctors in Mexico offered treatment, but they recommended he go to a cutting-edge research hospital. He first met with a neurosurgeon in Baltimore, who said removing that growth was a relatively straightforward procedure, but treating the disease throughout his body was the real challenge. So Victor decided to start interviewing oncologists. Two days later, Victor met with Hussein Tawbi, M.D., Ph.D., at MD Anderson. “When I met him, everything was so clear to me,” says Victor. “Those moments when you’re diagnosed and you have to decide where to get your treatment are very stressful. Once you find the best place for your treatment, then you rest. It was a relief to find Dr. Tawbi – not only his warmth, his kindness, but also his amazing knowledge and his groundbreaking research.” Since Victor’s brain metastasis presented the most immediate health risk, he underwent a craniotomy to remove the growth just one week after his first appointment at MD Anderson. Performed by Jeffrey Weinberg, M.D., the procedure addressed symptoms like confusion, seizures and trouble...