Bond built during breast cancer treatment inspires survivor to volunteer

It had been two years since Billa Woollam’s last mammogram, and she knew she was long overdue for one. But it was a strange sensation in her breast that sent her rushing into a clinic for a breast exam in November 2015. The following morning, she was asked to return for a biopsy. “My doctor’s office called and said I needed to be there within 30 minutes,” Billa recalls. “I knew they weren’t going to do that if there was nothing wrong with me.” A breast cancer diagnosis Billa had stage I breast cancer. The day after her diagnosis, she called MD Anderson. Within a week, she was at MD Anderson in Katy — just minutes from her home — to meet her radiation oncologist Elizabeth Bloom, M.D., and medical oncologist Nikesh Jasani, M.D. After discussing her treatment options, she opted for a lumpectomy, a less invasive surgery where doctors remove only the tumor and a small margin of healthy breast tissue. A special bond with her radiation therapy care team Billa had her lumpectomy on Dec. 8, 2015, and started 20 rounds of radiation therapy few weeks later. The first time she walked into the radiation room, she jokingly asked her radiation technicians to pin a photo of Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt on the ceiling to distract her during treatment. “From that moment on, they knew they could joke with me, and we had a fine time enjoying ourselves while I was having my radiation,” says Billa, who found the exchange of jokes eased her through each session. “We found a reason to laugh during most...

Clinical trial makes grandfather two-time lymphoma survivor

Jerry McLeary can recall the exact moment he just knew that his journey with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma would end happily. He was driving down the road with his wife when he smelled a skunk. When he asked her if she smelled it, she replied, “Yeah, isn’t that terrible?” “No, it smells good to me,” Jerry remembers saying. About a year earlier, Jerry had suddenly lost his sense of smell and taste, and the ability to breathe through his nose. He’d also developed a rash all over his body. At first, doctors in Tennessee, where he lives, thought allergies were to blame. But after months of treatment and no improvement, a CT scan finally shed light on the real problem. “They found a mass almost right between my eyes. A biopsy showed I had mantle cell lymphoma. They hooked me up with an oncologist in Jackson, Tennessee, but he recommended I get a second opinion at MD Anderson,” he says. A second opinion for mantle cell lymphoma In December 2006, Jerry and his wife made their way down to Houston and met with Michael Wang, M.D. “Dr. Wang told me right on the front end, ‘You’re a very sick man. You must do what I say do,’ and I said, ‘Hey buddy, I’m with you. Let’s go!’” Jerry recalls. Wang allowed Jerry to undergo chemotherapy in Tennessee under his direction. It took just one round for Jerry to regain his sense of smell. “I was amazed to have my nose back that quick,” he says. The good news kept coming. By the end of his fourth chemo...

9 things to know about CAR T-cell therapy

CAR T-cell therapy is a new type of cancer treatment offered at MD Anderson through clinical trials and FDA-approved standard of care cell therapy products. But what exactly is CAR T-cell therapy? And who should consider it? We spoke with Sattva Neelapu, M.D., to learn more. Here’s what he had to say. Let’s start with the basics. What is CAR T-cell therapy, and how does it work? CAR T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy called adoptive cell therapy. Doctors extract T cells (a type of white blood cell) from the patient’s blood and then add an artificial receptor (called a “chimeric antigen receptor”) to their surface. The receptor functions as a type of “heat-seeking missile,” enabling the modified cells to produce chemicals that kill cancer. And once we infuse them back into a patient’s body through an IV, they begin multiplying and attacking tumor cells. CAR T-cell therapy can cause some unusual side effects. Tell me about them. The most common side effect of CAR T-cell therapy is called cytokine release syndrome, or CRS. It’s also known as a “cytokine storm.” About 70-90% of patients experience it, but it’s very short-term and only lasts about five to seven days. Most patients describe it as having a severe case of the flu, with high fever, fatigue and body aches. It usually starts around the second or third day after the infusion. It happens because the T cells have been multiplying and attacking the cancer, causing an immune response in the body. There’s a very effective remedy for CRS now called tocilizumab, which reverses this side effect fairly quickly. The medicine...

Hemangioblastoma survivor grateful for neurosurgeon’s expertise

When the headache started, Tabatha Conway recognized it immediately. Although it had been 20 years since she first felt that headache, she knew what it meant: her brain tumor was back. “It’s a very specific headache,” Tabatha says. “It feels like blood pulsating towards the back of my head.” It’s a fitting description, because the tumor, called hemangioblastoma, grows from blood vessel cells in the brain. A stubborn brain tumor Tabatha’s headaches first began when she was 15 years old. They came and went every few months for four years. Over time, the headaches became more severe, sometimes causing Tabatha to vomit. One day, she woke up and couldn’t walk. Tabatha’s mother took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the posterior fossa region, near her cerebellum (the brain’s balance center). Tabatha had surgery and learned the tumor was a grade I hemangioblastoma, a rare, benign brain tumor. She didn’t have any other symptoms or problems until the headache returned 20 years later.   Tabatha’s second brain surgery was in 2005, but this time, the tumor grew back faster. It returned in 2013, then again and again. “The time between surgeries became shorter and shorter, and the tumor was getting bigger and bigger,” Tabatha says. “I lived in fear. I kept up a cheerful countenance, but I was scared all the time. Every time the doctor said he got all of it, it would come back.” Preparing for the worst As Tabatha’s doctor explained, parts of the tumor were too small to see, and those parts kept getting left behind and growing back....

Finding my voice after throat and salivary gland cancer

I’ve been struggling to make myself understood ever since I was a senior in high school. In April 1985, I was diagnosed with stage III nasopharyngeal carcinoma (a rare type of throat cancer). And for a while, my throat was so raw and painful from the radiation treatments I received that I didn’t want to talk. Those radiation treatments gave my voice a very “nasal” quality, too, so it was sometimes hard for people to understand me when I finally did start talking again. Around the year 2000, I started having more trouble speaking due to the radiation treatments I’d received as a teenager. It became even more challenging in September 2016, when I was diagnosed with stage II salivary gland cancer. I had surgery and more radiation to treat that. Today, I am cancer-free, but I’m still struggling to be heard. Learning new ways to communicate Speech without proper tongue movement is almost impossible. And speech therapy doesn’t help much when your tongue isn’t fully functional. So I carry a notepad with me wherever I go, and sometimes, a dry erase board. Because after the last round of surgery — during which Randal Weber, M.D. removed part of my right thigh muscle and two arteries from my left hand/wrist to repair my neck — the back, right-hand side of my tongue stopped working. I can still talk aloud, but my speech is becoming even harder to understand, and Dr. Weber says it will likely continue to deteriorate. So, when a person can’t figure out what I’m trying to say, I just take a deep breath and write it...