Women with anal cancer: What to know about sexual health

Around 5,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with anal cancer each year, which is often treated using radiation therapy. Although radiation therapy can be effective in treating the cancer, it often causes side effects, including changes to patients’ sexual health. This is especially true for women. But many anal cancer patients are unaware that radiation therapy may be the reason for these changes, or they’re too embarrassed to talk with their doctors about this. We talked with Cullen Taniguchi, M.D., Ph.D., to learn more about radiation therapy’s sexual side effects and how we’re helping patients cope. Here’s what he shared. How can radiation therapy change skin? Radiation can cause tenderness, redness, sores and scarring at the site of treatment. So when a tumor is located near the genitalia, patients may experience irritation that makes sexual activity uncomfortable or even painful. We often ask patients refrain from sexual activity until the skin starts feeling closer to normal, which is typically within 2 to 3 weeks after treatment. What challenges does scarring present? For women who receive radiation therapy as part of their anal cancer treatment, scarring at the end of the vagina is possible. This can block the cervix, making it difficult to conduct a Pap test. Also, scarring in the vagina can make penetration painful. How can sexual side effects be managed? To reduce the likelihood of external irritation at the genitalia, we can use intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT uses advanced computer software to direct multiple radiation beams of different intensities at the tumor, which allows us to treat the tumor with the highest possible dose...

Awake craniotomy for brain tumors: 8 questions

Imagine being able to talk to your doctors during brain tumor surgery without pain and give them immediate feedback while they operate. That’s exactly what happens during an awake craniotomy. A craniotomy is a type of surgery where a piece of the skull is temporarily removed to access the brain. In an awake craniotomy, the patient is woken up during surgery. MD Anderson doctors perform more than 90 awake craniotomies every year.   This highly specialized surgical procedure requires a team approach led by an experienced neurosurgeon and a neuroanesthesiologist. To learn more, we spoke to neurosurgeon Jeffrey Weinberg, M.D., and neuroanesthesiologist Shreyas Bhavsar, D.O. What’s the benefit of being awake during brain tumor surgery? Our goal is to remove as much of the tumor as possible, as safely as possible. When a tumor is near an area of the brain that controls critical functions — such as speech, language or movement — an awake craniotomy is the best way to identify and safely preserve those abilities. We know where certain functions are generally located on the brain’s surface. But below the surface, bundles of nerves pass through the brain to the spinal cord and throughout the body. We have to map these nerves to understand which ones are connected to key functions, so that we can avoid them as we remove the tumor. Damaging critical nerves could cause permanent disability. We also use other tools to map brain function, but mapping nerves during an awake craniotomy is the only way to obtain immediate feedback during surgery. Which patients are candidates for awake craniotomies? Awake craniotomies are frequently — but not...

4 things I learned from my daughter’s Ewing’s sarcoma treatment

When my daughter Aaliyah was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in November 2016 at age 9, I was shattered, vacillating hourly between two nearly unspeakable fears: the fear that she would not survive, and the fear that during the last weeks or months of her life, she would suffer relentlessly. Suddenly, thrust into a life I barely recognized, I struggled to navigate what moms who had gone before me kept assuring me would eventually become “a new normal.” I resisted that idea. The last thing I wanted was for life in a cancer hospital to be our new normal. But time marched on, as it tends to do, and our family did develop a new normal. Eventually, it didn’t feel so difficult to breathe, to eat, to smile, to laugh. Here’s what I recommend to other parents ushering a child through cancer treatment. Take care of yourself In the beginning, this feels next to impossible. For the first several weeks, I could barely sleep, eat or remember to take a shower. Friends brought my favorite foods to the hospital, but most of it went to waste due to my nonexistent appetite. I tolerated orange juice, so I drank it constantly, figuring that at least I was getting calories and vitamin C. I lost nearly fifteen pounds before my appetite returned. While I couldn’t physically nurture myself at first, I did tap into ways to nurture myself emotionally and spiritually. I spent time journaling, praying and sharing my heart online. I also had friends on standby to take my emotionally fragile phone calls at any hour of the night, whenever I...

The keto diet and cancer: What patients should know

There’s no one food that can cure cancer, but that doesn’t stop such myths from circulating. And while researchers are starting to find some links between nutrition and cancer, more research is needed. The ketogenic diet – also called the keto diet — is among those diets rumored to cure cancer. We talked to Maria Petzel, a senior clinical dietitian at MD Anderson, to learn more. Here’s what she had to say. What is the keto diet? The keto diet is a low-carbohydrate diet. The diet’s strict guidelines recommend eating more fat and protein while cutting most carbohydrates and sugars out of your diet. Cutting out carbs forces your body to burn the fat you’ve already stored. This process, called ketosis, usually begins three to four days after eliminating carbs from your diet. What are the pros and cons of the keto diet? For most people, the keto diet will result in weight loss, but this might not be the healthiest way to do it. When your body burns fat because it is starved of carbs, it makes ketones. Ketones are a type of acid made by your liver and then sent into your bloodstream. Too many ketones can led to dehydration and alter the chemical balance of your blood. Cutting out entire food groups can also be hard to stick with long-term, and most people regain some or all of the weight lost when they quit the keto diet and resume a less extreme diet. In addition, diets high in fat are associated with heart disease and obesity. Many keto diet-safe foods, like red meat, can increase your...

After my Lynch Syndrome diagnosis, I’m grateful to be a previvor

When I was 6 years old, my mother died from cancer. She was only 35, and at the time, her death came as a shock to everyone in our family. About 24 years later, my maternal aunt was diagnosed with serous uterine cancer. Her oncologist noticed a pattern of cancer in our family. Genetic testing confirmed his suspicion: my aunt had Lynch Syndrome, a genetic mutation that increases a person’s for colorectal and uterine cancers. Her daughter had it, too. My sister and I started receiving calls, desperately urging us to get tested.  My Lynch Syndrome diagnosis My sister and I both saw a genetic counselor, and considering how Lynch Syndrome can be passed on to your children roughly 50% of the time, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when she tested negative and I positive for the mutation. I listened as the genetic counselor told me that my likelihood of cancer would be extremely high if I didn’t stay vigilant. She said that I would need to have my ovaries and my uterus removed, and worst of all, that my 3-year-old son could have Lynch Syndrome as well. I felt as though the air had been taken from my lungs.  The genetic counselor referred me to MD Anderson. On Aug. 23, 2016, I walked through the halls of MD Anderson for the first time since my mother’s death. I remembered visiting her there when I was a little girl. I was incredibly depressed and anxious, especially because according to the Lynch Syndrome standards, I should’ve begun my screenings 10 years earlier, when I was in my early 20s....