Getting to know MD Anderson president Peter WT Pisters, M.D.

Peter WT Pisters, M.D., MD Anderson’s fifth full-time president, began his role Dec. 1, with a renewed spirit of unity and excitement. Like each of us here, Pisters feels a deep connection to MD Anderson, our mission and the patients we serve. Pisters built his career here for 20 years as a cancer surgeon, researcher, professor and administrator. He left in 2014 to oversee the University Health Network, affiliated with the University of Toronto, the largest hospital-based research program in Canada. He began his presidency at MD Anderson by attending New Employee Orientation, followed by rounding and interacting with employees in all four mission areas of patient care, research, education and prevention. Committed to learning everything he can about MD Anderson, Pisters continues to engage stakeholders at all levels and in all areas to hear about our strengths and where we might improve. We recently sat down with Pisters to learn a little more about him. Here’s what he had to say. What word best describes you? Curious. What prepared you for your role as MD Anderson’s president? The most important preparation I had was the privilege of caring for cancer patients as an MD Anderson faculty member for 20 years. My understanding of frontline cancer-fighting experience here at MD Anderson gives me deep insight into our mission and culture. Also, I know that my master’s degree in health care management and my experience as chief executive officer at University Health Network in Toronto provided solid academic training and chief executive leadership experience that are absolutely essential for me to serve our organization as president. As you’ve traveled around...

How I found strength during breast cancer treatment

When I received a phone call about an abnormality discovered during my mammogram in December 2016, I didn’t think much of it. I was prone to getting fluid-filled cysts in both my breasts, and I’d always gone in and had the cysts drained. But this mammogram was different: it showed a solid tumor in my right breast. I went in for a biopsy, and the results left me in shock. I really didn’t know how to accept my HER2-negative breast cancer diagnosis. Then I remembered my years as a single mother and the difficult months I’d spent caring for my husband, who’d died from colorectal cancer four years earlier. From these experiences, I knew I had the strength to face any challenge. I just needed to have faith and do whatever needed to be done to survive. For me, that meant returning to MD Anderson. My late husband received amazing care there, so I knew I could trust the doctors and staff with my life. My breast cancer treatment In January 2016, I scheduled my first appointment at MD Anderson in Sugar Land, the MD Anderson location closest to my home. My first conversation with Dr. Sadia Saleem assured me I was in the right place. After she went through my treatment options, she looked at me and said, “Leave this cancer to me. I’m going to treat you and take care of you. I want you to live your life.” When I started my chemotherapy regimen with Paclitaxel in March 2017, I did my best to keep my life as normal as possible. I scheduled my infusions on...

Clinical trial participant: Why I don’t mind being in the control group

When I was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndromes (a precursor of acute myeloid leukemia) in July 2015, I don’t know what shocked me more: the fact that my only chance for a cure was a bone marrow transplant, or that because I was 75, my “advanced” age disqualified me from receiving one. Then I discovered that my insurance provider would consider covering transplants for patients over age 65 — but only if they met certain fitness criteria, and the transplants took place as part of clinical trials at a certified institution. Since I’d been playing squash competitively for years, I knew I could meet the health requirements. So, I began researching hospitals. As an economist, I like somebody with experience. And when I read about the incredible work Richard Champlin, M.D., was doing in this area — and the fact that MD Anderson performs about 850 stem cell transplants a year — I called to make an appointment. How I’m contributing to cancer-fighting science I participated in two different clinical trials at MD Anderson. The first one tested the effectiveness of a particular combination of chemotherapy drugs (administered in a certain sequence) designed to prepare older patients for stem cell transplants with reduced-intensity conditioning. The second one tested whether a chemotherapy drug called azacitidine (Vidaza) could help prevent a recurrence if administered after a stem cell transplant. I received the drugs as part of the first clinical trial, but was randomly assigned to the group of patients that did not receive the drug as a part of the second. At first, I was a little disappointed. But the way I...

Opioids for cancer pain relief: Myths and facts

Opioids are medications that can help manage pain caused by cancer and its treatment by blocking pain signals from injured nerves to the brain. They can help relieve aching, throbbing pain in the muscles (known as nociceptor pain), or numbness in the hands and feet known as neuropathy. We spoke with Dhanalakshmi ("Lakshmi") Koyyalagunta, M.D., about what cancer patients should know about opioids and myths surrounding them. Here’s what she said. What are common opioids prescribed to cancer patients? Some of the most commonly prescribed opioids are tramadol, hydrocodone, morphine, methadone, hydromorphone, oxycodone, tapentadol, oxymorphone and fentanyl patches. They vary in strength and form (pill, elixir, patch or intravenous formulation). When are opioids prescribed for cancer pain? We prescribe opioids in the most necessary situations, such as for patients who have significant pain from their cancer or their treatment. We use opioids cautiously because of the risk of addiction and because they’re more easily tolerated over time, which makes them less effective in managing pain. When we do prescribe opioids, they’re just one part of our pain management approach. What side effects are caused by opioid use? Patients taking opioids may experience constipation, drowsiness, nausea, itching, increased sweating, a weakened immune system and hormonal changes. There’s also the risk of misusing these medications, which worries many patients. Here are three myths I commonly hear from patients regarding these drugs. Myth 1: If I take an opioid for my pain, I’ll get addicted. Certain factors make a patient more likely to misuse opioids. Young patients with a history of anxiety, depression, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse or sexual abuse are...

My advice for coping with Lynch Syndrome

In 2016, I found out that I had inherited a genetic mutation known as Lynch Syndrome from my mother, who’d died 26 years earlier from cancer. The news was overwhelming, to say the least. But now that I’ve been actively managing this hereditary cancer syndrome for nearly a year-and-a-half, I’ve finally made peace with it. If you’ve just been diagnosed with Lynch Syndrome, here’s my advice for you. Follow the screening recommendations For people with Lynch Syndrome, cancer screenings should begin in the early 20s. I didn’t know I carried the mutation until I was 32. My first colonoscopy showed I’d already developed a polyp that was likely to become cancer. Thankfully, colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers because colonoscopies allow doctors to remove suspicious polyps before they turn into cancer. I also regularly undergo other screening exams, including skin and ovarian screenings, as well as blood draws, ultrasounds and biopsies. I usually begin my screening process around the same time every year so that it’s easier to remember. I undergo all of my exams at MD Anderson, and they usually set up my appointments back-to-back to make it less complicated. Sometimes, I’ll get my skin checkups at MD Anderson in Sugar Land when it’s more convenient for me. I just make sure that I never skip an appointment. Stay vigilant I am very aware of the signs of ovarian, colorectal, and uterine cancers – all of which are cancers that run in my family. Ovarian cancer can be hard to detect, but I pay attention to my body and look for abnormal vaginal bleeding, bloating,...