Why a brain tumor survivor brought his guitar into the OR

When Robert Alvarez was diagnosed with a low-grade insular brain tumor in 2013, he decided to hope for the best and postpone treatment. “The doctors told me surgery could leave me paralyzed,” Robert recalls. He noticed increasing headaches and clumsiness, but the symptoms were still manageable. As an active 19-year-old athlete and musician, Robert felt the risks of surgery were worse than living with the brain tumor.   “I just hoped it wouldn’t grow and tried to be careful,” he says. After high school, Robert moved from San Antonio to Chicago to pursue a music career and start vocational school in audio engineering. Meanwhile, his mother began researching neurosurgeons and hospitals for the future. A love of music In Chicago, Robert started a metal band with a few friends. His brain tumor served as the inspiration for the band’s name: Death from Within. Robert had started playing the guitar at age 12, inspired by an eclectic mix of music, ranging from 90s hip-hop to heavy metal. “I picked it up fast,” Robert says. “I like to bump it – just turn the amp up and jam when everyone else leaves the house.” The road to MD Anderson   After a few years in Chicago, Robert began to notice new symptoms. “I would wake up at night feeling weird, and I’d run to look at myself in the bathroom mirror,” he says. “One night, I fell out of bed. My roommate heard me hit the wood floor and came to check on me.” Robert was having seizures – a common brain tumor symptom – in his sleep. Robert woke up...

Kidney cancer survivor: Don’t delay seeing a doctor

Prior to being diagnosed with kidney cancer, I’d never heard of MD Anderson. But the more I researched my disease, the more I kept seeing Dr. Nizar Tannir’s name. The type of kidney cancer I was diagnosed with — medullary renal cell carcinoma — is pretty rare, and most of the other treatment centers I contacted said they had no experience with it. They also told me to find a place offering clinical trials, which MD Anderson does. When I discovered that Dr. Tannir worked at MD Anderson, I reached out by email to schedule an appointment. Not only did he have experience treating my exact type of cancer, but at the time, MD Anderson was one of the only — if not the only — places that was actively conducting research on it. Fortunately, my kidney cancer treatment worked better than expected, so I never had to join a clinical trial. But it’s comforting to know that I could have, if I’d needed to. My kidney cancer symptoms I first learned I had cancer in April 2012. I’d been experiencing pain on the right side of my back and flank over about six months, and it was getting progressively worse. Eventually, it began radiating down into my groin. I also developed a cough that wouldn’t go away and started feeling a burning sensation in my lungs. I finally went to a local emergency room when I noticed a lot of blood in my urine. The doctors there performed CT scans and found a mass in my right kidney. They suspected it was cancer. Chest X-rays showed that it had...

My colorectal cancer treatment: How I’m coping

I was raised believing that everything happens for a reason, and that’s exactly how I’ve chosen to approach my treatment for colorectal cancer. I was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer in the November 2012 after I started experiencing pain in my stomach. At first, I thought I might’ve become lactose intolerant, but when the pain persisted, I went to the doctor.  A stool test revealed blood, so my doctor insisted I undergo a colonoscopy. Even though I was 67 at the time, I’d never done the procedure before because I wasn’t aware of the colorectal cancer screening guidelines. Sure enough, my colonoscopy confirmed I had cancer. Beginning my colorectal cancer treatment I immediately started chemotherapy near my East Texas home, and then at my doctor’s recommendation, I came to MD Anderson in June 2013 for a partial colectomy to remove part of my colon.  The surgery successfully removed all but a tiny spot of my cancer. I then underwent more chemotherapy to treat the remaining cancer. Thankfully, I was given the option of receiving chemotherapy under the care of Dr. Douglas Nelson at MD Anderson in The Woodlands, which cut the commute from my East Texas home by more than an hour.  I received the chemo combination FOLRIFI/Bevacizumab from July-October 2014 and then 5-FU/Bevacizumab, a type of maintenance chemo, from October 2014-April 2015. My scans showed that my cancerous spot was still there, but it was small enough that I got by with just observation for 4 months. But when the spot started growing after 4 months, Dr. Nelson said I had to resume treatment. Coping with setbacks...

Volunteer: How I’m helping others end cancer

One early Friday morning in August 2017, my wife Sandra and I showed up to MD Anderson in Katy for her very first day of breast cancer treatment. Needless to say, this was not one of our better days. Her oncologist, Dr. Nikesh Jasani, had recommended that she start chemotherapy to shrink the tumor in her right breast before surgery. We were both rife with apprehension as we sat in the clinic waiting for her name to be called so she could undergo something we knew absolutely nothing about. We spotted a gentleman who appeared so upbeat and jovial, as if he did not have a worry in the world. He sat right next to us and started a conversation. Within minutes, the three of us were laughing and talking as if we had known each other for years. It turns out that this gentleman, Browning “Brownie” Sinclair, is an MD Anderson volunteer. Brownie explained to Sandra and me about his volunteer duties, and I said, “Sounds like something I can do!” Without hesitation, he whipped out a business card for MD Anderson’s Volunteer Services and Merchandising department. Within a couple of days, I applied for a volunteer position. Helping others as we’ve been helped Now I spend one day a week doing for others what Brownie has done for Sandra and me. I’m a prostate cancer survivor myself, so I’m well aware of the challenges of cancer. However, volunteering opened my eyes even wider. It’s helped me realize that even though our journeys are unique, we often share the same struggles. As a volunteer, I enjoy sharing my...

How to find the right cancer support group for you

A cancer support group is a safe place to share your experiences and connect with others facing the same challenges. It gives you the space to connect with others dealing with cancer, talk openly about your feelings, receive practical advice, share resources and contacts, better understand and be able to describe your experience and develop coping skills.  Studies have shown that support groups can reduce isolation, anxiety and stress. They can also improve mood, self-image and the ability to cope. With all of these benefits, you’d think that attending a cancer support group would be a no-brainer. But some people find the idea a little intimidating. And that’s totally normal. It can be nerve-wracking to put yourself in new situations, introduce yourself to new people and especially to face experiences you haven’t been able to process yet. Decide what you’re looking for in a cancer support group To get the most out of a cancer support group, it’s important to find the right one for you. Here are a few questions to answer before attending one: What type of support are you looking for? Some support groups are more social in nature. Their purpose is to connect people with shared experiences in a casual environment. Other support groups are more talk-therapy based, and focus on helping group members process their experiences. Who are you wanting to get support from? Some support groups are geared towards patients and/or caregivers dealing with a specific diagnosis, while others are open to all diagnoses. There are also support groups that are for both patients and caregivers, patients only, caregivers only, young adults, kids...