How a targeted therapy clinical trial is keeping my bile duct cancer in check

Cancer is not uncommon in my family, but I was still totally unprepared for my own diagnosis. In June 2015, I was a healthy 43-year-old mom and first-grade teacher who never got sick. Then I noticed a pain in my left arm while I was packing up my classroom. It had been bothering me for a couple of weeks, but I hadn’t given it much thought. I nursed it for another month before finally going to the doctor. She said I’d probably pulled a muscle moving boxes, but I pressed for a scan. Moving my arm was painful enough that I was sure something needed to be done. And I wanted to get it taken care of while I was still on summer break. The following week I had an MRI. I was pretty convinced I’d torn my rotator cuff, so I wasn’t worried when the doctor asked me to come back for the results later that same day. I expected her to tell me I needed surgery. And she did — but not for the reason I thought. Instead, she said there was a mass growing in my humerus. The tumor was so large it had split the bone. The radiologist suspected it was cancer. Why I chose MD Anderson for my bile duct cancer treatment After that, I just went numb. I didn’t hear anything else, except, “Do you have an oncologist?” And I remember thinking, “Huh? Do healthy people really have an oncologist on stand-by?” Then I burst into tears. After I calmed down, I said I wanted to go to MD Anderson. My mom has...

Life after my leukemia diagnosis and stem cell transplant

Before my acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis, I was in great shape. I was training 20-25 hours a week as a professional triathlete and had recently won an IRONMAN 70.3 and placed 5th in an IRONMAN Regional Pro Championship in Frankfurt, Germany. I know no one feels great right after an IRONMAN competition, but after Ironman Frankfurt in July, I was feeling a bit “off” and more tired than usual. A few weeks later, a routine blood test showed that I had a slightly abnormal white blood cell count. My doctor wasn’t sure if my intense workout routine was negatively impacting my body or if something more serious was going on. I followed his advice to cease training for three months to see how I felt. When I returned for a follow-up visit that November, my white blood cell count had dropped more. At that point, my doctor referred me to a hematologist. An acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis changed my plans On Dec. 23, 2014, I received my diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia. In a way, I was relieved there was an explanation for my fatigue and a cure for my disease. But I was also in shock. I’d planned to complete at least one more season of racing before retiring. Now, cancer was forcing me to focus on surviving, not training. I completed chemotherapy near my home, then, at my local oncologist’s recommendation, I traveled to MD Anderson from Austin for a stem cell transplant. Here, Dr. Betul Oran initially had planned for me to undergo an allogeneic stem cell transplant, which would have used a healthy donor’s stem cells...

How I coped with my emotions during bladder cancer treatment

After I was diagnosed with stage IV bladder cancer in September 2014, I experienced many of the stages of grief. My doctor initially thought I was suffering from prostatitis. But the biopsy results from a tissue sample taken from my groin area came back positive for bladder cancer. To say I was in shock is an understatement. I was in disbelief. I never really drank or smoked, so I couldn’t really understand why this was happening to me. I finished four rounds of chemotherapy near my home in Wisconsin only to get more bad news: not only were the treatments unsuccessful, but my cancer had spread to several lymph nodes in different parts of my body. As a result, the bladder removal surgery I was scheduled to undergo was no longer a viable option. Then my local oncologist called and said, “How do you feel about going to Texas? They’re doing this new immunotherapy thing down there — you should check it out.” My wife and I hadn’t heard of MD Anderson before, but an internet search convinced us that we were heading to the right place. An immunotherapy clinical trial put my bladder cancer in remission During our first appointment, Dr. Jennifer Wang laid out several treatment options for me. Because I’d already experienced disappointing results with one standard treatment protocol, I was convinced that immunotherapy was my only hope. I decided to enroll in a Phase I/II clinical trial for examining the effectiveness of taking the immunotherapy drug nivolumab by itself versus combining it with an immunotherapy drug called ipilimumab. I was selected to undergo the combination....