Why managing heart health during and after cancer treatment is critical

Every year, the number of cancer survivors grows. That’s why it’s becoming increasingly important for doctors to make sure cancer treatments don’t cause any lingering side effects — particularly when it comes to heart health. Heart problems are the leading cause of death in Americans each year. Cancer is No. 2. So if we’re able to cure someone’s cancer, we certainly don’t want to leave them with any cardiovascular issues. Chemotherapy drug adversely affects heart function Many cancer treatments can impair heart function. One is the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, which is used frequently to treat breast cancer, as well as some sarcomas and lymphomas. Doxorubicin has been around since the early 1970s and can reduce the heart’s ability to pump blood. Traditionally, this side effect has been described as “irreversible.” But we’re discovering that some of the patients we give heart-protective medication to show improvement, even years after they’ve completed treatment. So, that’s great news. And, only about 2% of breast cancer patients will experience heart-related side effects from receiving the typical dose of doxorubicin. That goes up to about 5% in lymphoma and sarcoma patients, because of the higher doses used to treat those cancers.  Other treatments that affect heart function Another drug that can affect the heart negatively is trastuzumab, which is a type of targeted therapy. Its effects have classically been described as “reversible.” That means if we stop administering the drug, the side effects disappear and the heart typically returns to normal within about four weeks. But even with newer targeted therapies, we are seeing less than 1% of patients have decreased-heart-function-related side effects.   Radiation...

Cervical cancer survivor: Why I support the HPV vaccine

Any time you’re told you have cancer, it’s not good news. Even if you catch it early and it’s only in the beginning stages, all you hear is the word “cancer.” And no matter how many people try to reassure you, it’s still very scary. When I was diagnosed with HPV-related cervical cancer in the summer of 2016, everything that comes along with that word ran through my mind: What am I going to do? What effects will it have on me? Am I going to lose my hair? What else am I going to lose? Fortunately, I’ve shown no evidence of the disease since having a hysterectomy at MD Anderson in November 2016.  Now that I’m on the other side of that experience, I want to help spread the word — both about the importance of women getting screened regularly for cervical cancer and the importance of boys and girls receiving the HPV vaccine. My cervical cancer diagnosis I have been going to my ob/gyn since before my daughter was born 20 years ago and had my routine Pap tests and HPV tests every year. I never had any abnormal results until July 2015, so I was surprised when I tested positive for HPV. Fortunately, the results didn’t show any of the strains that can cause cancer, so my doctor said there was no reason for alarm. She would just continue to monitor me. The following year, I tested positive for HPV again, and this time, the strains that can cause cancer were present. My doctor ordered a colposcopy to check for cervical cancer. Much to my surprise,...

Triple-negative breast cancer survivor: ‘MD Anderson is my life’

Over the last two decades, I’ve learned a lot about MD Anderson as a caregiver, an employee, and most recently, a triple-negative breast cancer patient. I joined MD Anderson in 2004 as a nurse in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit. I decided to become an oncology nurse after witnessing the care my aunt received at MD Anderson several years earlier. I spent many days with her at the hospital during her breast cancer treatment, and I was so touched by everyone’s bedside manner. Her care team was not only attentive to her needs, but also supported me as I learned to care for her. I spent the first 10 years of my nursing career at MD Anderson providing patients and caregivers the same level of care that my aunt and I received. In my current role, I manage a program that aims to further improve our quality of nursing through evidence-based practices, and I mentor nurses across MD Anderson. My triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis I’ve dedicated my life to MD Anderson because I believe in our mission to end cancer and the work we do. And now, as I undergo treatment for triple-negative breast cancer, I’ve put my trust into MD Anderson again. Last Presidents’ Day, I felt a lump at the base of my breast during my morning stretch. Even though I’d had a clean mammogram after my 40th birthday just 7 months earlier, I knew I had to take this discovery seriously. The next day, I had another mammogram and a core biopsy at MD Anderson’s Undiagnosed Breast Clinic. The following day, my diagnosis was confirmed. My tumor...

My fertility uncertainties after Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a stem cell transplant

Over the years, my opinion on the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a result of my Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis has changed a few times. During treatment, I thought the hardest part was recovering from my autologous stem cell transplant, when I had to stay in the hospital for four weeks and couldn’t go outside. After that, the biggest challenge became coping with my fear of recurrence. I had a period of intense anxiety and depression, though medication and daily meditation eventually helped me get to a better place. Now that I’m three-and-a-half years into remission, I’m coping with the possibility that the stem cell transplant made me infertile. Fertility preservation before my stem cell transplant I first became aware that this was a possibility when I was diagnosed with stage IIB Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2013. I was just 21 years old. When I had a recurrence after 12 rounds of chemotherapy, my oncologist in Nacogdoches, TX, referred me to MD Anderson for a stem cell transplant. My MD Anderson care team explained that the high-dose chemotherapy I’d need to prepare my body for the stem cell transplant would be aggressive, and it would almost definitely harm my fertility. I got a referral to see MD Anderson oncofertility specialist Dr. Terri Woodard to discuss my fertility preservation options. Dr. Woodard explained that I could freeze either my eggs or whole embryos, though the latter option would give me the best chance of having biological children. I decided to speak to my boyfriend, Daniel, about freezing embryos. We’d been dating for a year and a half and were seriously committed...