Rectal cancer survivor finds renewed hope at MD Anderson

A nagging pain at the end of Sam Markota’s digestive tract suddenly became unbearable during a business trip to Thailand. The then-55-year-old returned to the U.S. for his first colonoscopy. In April 2015, Sam learned that he had rectal cancer, and it had already spread to his liver and right lung. “My first oncologist had me dead in a couple years,” Sam recalls. After undergoing chemotherapy, he and his wife sought a second opinion at MD Anderson in Katy, just minutes from their home. Rectal cancer treatment at MD Anderson in Katy “We haven’t looked back since,” Sam says. “Dr. Nikesh Jasani explained everything and developed a plan. Everything was done in a positive manner. There was no mention of you’ve got 3, 4, 5 years left.” Sam resumed chemotherapy at MD Anderson in Katy and simultaneously received five-and-a-half weeks of radiation therapy. In September 2015, he underwent a liver resection with Yun Shin Chun, M.D. “The tumor was almost right on top of a main vein in the liver, so it was a tricky surgery,” Sam says. The following April, Craig Messick, M.D., performed a pelvic surgery, where he removed Sam’s entire rectum and connected his colon to his anal canal, and removed several lymph nodes. Messick also performed a diverting loop ileostomy, a procedure that diverts one end of the small intestine from the colon through an incision in the abdominal wall to collect feces and allow healing.  Sam used the small intestine bag for six months until everything had fully healed and was off chemotherapy. Bowel troubles won’t stop him from living In early 2017, Sam...

Two-time sinus cancer survivor: Find humor, joy in hardship

Cancer wasn’t Adel Tawfik’s first medical crisis. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Adel had two open-heart surgeries. In 2015, he had a near-fatal colectomy after Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis diagnoses. Then, in 2016, he fell and broke several ribs, puncturing a lung. Shortly afterwards, he learned that the pain on the right side of his face wasn’t from the fall; it was oral cancer — specifically, sinus cancer — that was spreading across his face. “I remembered thinking, ‘God, I need a break,’” he says. “Then I felt God say, ‘Why are you asking for another break? I just gave you a big one break in your ribs.’ I began to laugh, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘I can handle this. I’m going to be OK.’” The 69-year-old has used humor to get through every challenge he’s faced. “The glass is always half-full. Actually in my case, the glass is probably 90% empty,” he jokes. “But that 10% is valuable and a very good reason to enjoy life.” Initial oral cancer treatment For Adel, music and family represent the 10% of joy left in his life. That’s why he initially didn’t want a surgery that threatened to end his ability to sing. Ehab Hanna, M.D.; Clifton Fuller, M.D., Ph.D.; and now-retired medical oncologist Merrill Kies, M.D.; collaborated to develop a treatment plan that included four rounds of chemotherapy, followed by seven weeks of daily high-dose radiation therapy. Adel rang the bell at MD Anderson to mark the end of his treatment on Dec. 7, 2016. “My lips were cracked and bleeding from the radiation, but that was...

Skin cancer survivor finds courage, support in other patients

During one of my first visits to MD Anderson, I went to The Learning Center and read about the type of skin cancer that’d been discovered above my right eyebrow. Known as squamous cell carcinoma, it’s aggressive and dangerous, but I hadn’t fully realized this until that moment inside MD Anderson’s patient education library. As fear started to set in, I quit reading and headed to the Aquarium, the lobby at the entrance to MD Anderson’s Clark Clinic. I solemnly sat on a chair, waiting for my next appointment. Then out of nowhere, a little girl approached me. She had no eyebrows, no hair, no eyelashes and a chemo port above her chest. As she twirled the hospital bands around her wrist, she smiled at me, then she grabbed my arm, looked at my arm band and smiled again. She held her arms out, and as I bent forward to hug her, she wrapped her arms around my neck. Finally, she said, “Everything is going to be OK.” I couldn’t believe it. This girl had obviously been through so much, yet somehow, she still maintained a hopeful attitude. She not only lifted my spirits but set the example for how I face cancer treatment. My skin cancer treatment That week, Dr. Ehab Hanna told me that I needed Mohs surgery — a highly specialized type of skin cancer surgery — and proton therapy. But the news came with a devastating caveat: to successfully undergo proton therapy, I’d need to have all of my teeth pulled. Most of my teeth had silver fillings, which could impact the accuracy of my...

How I managed my emotions during thyroid cancer treatment

As I learned when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer earlier this year, there’s a lot of scary and unfamiliar territory to deal with when you find out you have cancer. You don’t know what will happen or whether you’re making the right choices or whether anyone else knows what it’s like to deal with the new bodily changes you’re facing. All of that uncertainty can easily consume you if you let it. As someone who’s struggled with anxiety for many years, I sometimes struggled to keep my emotions in check when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Here are some things I did that helped me keep my emotions in check. Laugh at the pain I’ve always believed that when you laugh at something that scares you, you take away some of its power over you. About a week before my thyroid cancer surgery, I was feeling nervous and anxious. My husband and I were watching reruns of “The Office.” The main character Michael Scott, hates his human resources rep, Toby Flenderson, and believes Toby is always trying to sabotage him. The narrative was so befitting of my situation that I named my tumor “Toby the Terrible Thyroid.” Giving a name to my cancer made it easier to navigate the fear, sadness and the anger I felt, and it provided much needed laughter. How could I possibly be scared of something named Toby the Terrible Thyroid? As a former crime scene investigator who now teaches that subject, I joke that my surgery scar is actually Toby’s crime scene. This running joke also helped my family and friends. Having...

Meet Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D.

Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., is a true global citizen whose passion for discovery put his career on a winding path with universities and pharmaceutical companies in several countries. He moved to Houston to join MD Anderson in 2011 and is helping to drive cancer innovation as co-leader of MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program, an ambitious effort focused on quickly and effectively turning scientific discoveries into advances in cancer care. We recently interviewed him to learn more about his work here and what drives him to end cancer. Where did you grow up? I grew up and completed my education in Naples, Italy. I’m the only one in my family who left Naples. What was your first job? I worked at a milk production plant doing quality control when I was 19. Do you still conduct research? Yes. My lab attempts to identify brain cancer and pancreatic cancer vulnerabilities that might lend themselves to treatment. I became interested in biology and chemistry during school. I loved my medical training in emergency medicine but ultimately decided to focus on laboratory research and the discovery of new cancer drugs. What made you decide to join MD Anderson? I was drawn immediately to the people. Everyone is passionate about the mission. MD Anderson also has a unique culture of collaboration that was very appealing. For scientists, there’s such an amazing opportunity here to work closely with clinical experts to bring new therapeutic opportunities to patients. What three words describe you best? Happy. Caring. Passionate. What do you want people to know about our Moon Shots Program™? The program is unique. It’s achieving what...