Employee’s courage inspired by our cancer patients

Angelina was Shamsha Damani’s best friend for three years. A constant in the MD Anderson program director’s daily life, well-known to her large family and even some of her co-workers, Angelina wasn’t someone Damani met in school, a mentor at work or a beloved pet. Angelina was her wig. A new look Just after starting her job at MD Anderson’s Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center, Damani noticed that her hair was falling out at a rapid pace. She didn’t worry initially. She’d had autoimmune issues in the past, and it had always grown back. This time was different. Within a month, she’d lost all of her hair on her head, even her eyebrows and eyelashes, due to an autoimmune disorder called alopecia. “I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror, and it was really rough at first,” she says. “Whenever I looked at family photos, it was painful because I knew I’d never look like that again.” There is currently no treatment or cure for alopecia, but her family’s support kept her moving forward and discovering how to live with her new condition. Her sister found the wig makers who created Angelina (named after actress Angelina Jolie); her son was the voice of positivity throughout everything. “When I was upset about how I looked different from before my alopecia, he told me, ‘Mom, pretend you were born this way, and let’s make new memories for our photos,’ which was great advice, especially given he was 7 at the time,” she recalls. Wanting to make a difference When she was younger, Damani wanted to help find the cure for terrible diseases...

4-time cancer survivor: ‘Don’t delay the checks’

Between 1995 and 2009, I was diagnosed with four different types of cancer. The first diagnosis didn’t really bother me. The second one hit me like a ton of bricks. The third one made me angry. And the fourth one was overwhelming. For a long time, I wondered what was wrong with me that this kept happening. And I still haven’t found a satisfying explanation. But I’m kind of shocked by how comfortable I feel discussing it now. So, maybe that’s my mission: to talk about it. How I learned I had cancer, four separate times My first cancer diagnosis came about when I was living in Los Angeles. I’d noticed a slightly discolored area on my right cheek, but ignored it for several months. It got bumpy and I could actually feel it, so I saw a doctor. A biopsy revealed it was skin cancer, and I had a few rounds of radiation to treat it. That left me with what looks like an oddly shaped dimple on that cheek, but caused me no problems otherwise. The second diagnosis came in 2003, when I developed a lump on the side of my neck. It grew to the size of a golf ball over about six months, but I blew it off, too, at first. My younger brother had had a marble-sized growth removed from his hand years prior, which ended up being a cyst. I figured mine was, too. But it turned out to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Luckily, chemotherapy put me into remission. My third diagnosis came in 2005, when severe back pains made it hard for me...

Colorectal cancer taught me to listen to my body

I started finding blood in my stool in the fall of 2013, but at the time, it didn’t seem that strange to me. Constipation runs in my family, and I’ve always been easily constipated. But water’s my solution to everything, so I figured I just needed to drink more of it. A few months later, I started feeling really out of breath after even the slightest activity, and whenever I lifted something heavy, I’d throw up right afterwards. My family told me I looked really pale, and I’d lost a lot of weight. Finally, I went to the doctor. Blood tests showed that my hemoglobin levels were so low, I should have been in a coma. I was admitted to the hospital right away. Additional tests showed I was losing blood from my colon, so I received six units of it immediately, just to replace what I’d lost. The next day, I had an endoscopy and a colonoscopy to find the source of the bleeding. The second test revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in my colon, which had spread to a few nearby lymph nodes. I was diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer. Why I came to MD Anderson At first, I couldn’t believe this was really happening. I was only 19 and had just graduated from high school. But the tumor was real, and my local doctors did micro-surgery through my belly button to remove it. They also recommended six months of chemotherapy. By this time, I realized I wanted a second opinion, so I came to MD Anderson. People travel to MD Anderson...

Could the microbiome change the future of cancer treatment?

We practice hand hygiene to help keep ourselves from getting sick from the bacteria all around us. But each of us already has a huge population of bacteria on and inside us: our microbiome. It’s impossible to count every cell and microbe, but it’s estimated that each person has at least as many bacteria in their body as their own cells, if not more. If we have trillions of bacteria all around us, then why aren’t we constantly sick? MD Anderson scientists are finding that the microbiome, especially our gut microbiome, plays an important role in keeping our bodies healthy. Improving cancer treatment for melanoma patients Immunotherapy drugs have been a great success for some cancer patients, training their own immune systems to attack the cancer cells. These treatments don’t always help, though, and as part of our Melanoma Moon Shot™, doctors have been searching for answers as to why some patients have great responses to immunotherapies and others don’t respond at all. Along with her team, Jennifer Wargo, M.D., co-leader of the Melanoma Moon Shot, is studying how the makeup of the gut microbiomes in her melanoma patients affect their response to anti-PD-1 immune checkpoint blockade therapies. Preliminary results show that the patients who responded best to the anti-PD-1 treatments also had the most diversity of microbes in their guts, as well as types of bacteria that are different than those who didn’t respond to the treatment. “Now that we’ve documented these differences, we’re hoping to find ways to help those patients who don’t have good responses on their own,” Wargo says. “The gut microbiome shapes much of...

Racing despite adenoid cystic carcinoma metastasis

In the last five years, I’ve competed in 10 professional outrigger canoeing competitions across North and South America. I’ve also had stereotactic radiation therapy and cryoablation, and taken immunotherapy and targeted therapy drugs to treat my metastatic adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare type of head and neck cancer. To say I’m blessed to be able to maintain my professional canoeing career while undergoing cancer treatment at MD Anderson is an understatement. An unexpected adenoid cystic carcinoma diagnosis My cancer journey began in 2007, when I discovered a tiny bump behind my left ear. Being only 28 at the time, I didn’t think much of it. But when I started feeling pain around the bump six months later, I went to a head and neck specialist in my native country of Peru. The doctor said I likely had a benign tumor that needed to be removed. Unfortunately, after my surgery, pathology results showed my tumor was actually adenoid cystic carcinoma. I completed 30 rounds of radiation therapy and went into remission. My adenoid cystic carcinoma recurrence I continued to show no evidence of disease until 2013. During a follow-up appointment, a PET scan showed suspicious activity in the L3 vertebra of my spine. By then, I’d already been competing professionally with Peru’s national women’s outrigger team for a year, and I worried that this new cancer diagnosis would end my career. My father urged me to seek a second opinion at MD Anderson, so with the help of MD Anderson’s International Center, we scheduled my first appointment with Dr. Ehab Hanna. When I met with Dr. Hanna the first time,...