Inflammatory breast cancer survivor: Why I give back to MD Anderson

After being greeted by the breast cancer survivors who volunteer in MD Anderson’s Breast Center on my first day as a patient, I always knew I wanted to give back in that same way one day. Those beautiful women let me know that a breast cancer diagnosis wasn’t going to be an insurmountable obstacle — because they had all been through one, too, and survived. They were clearly thriving, so that provided tangible evidence it was possible. Just to have another person saying, “Look. I’ve been through all of this myself, and you’ll get through it, too,” was so powerful. That was a message I really needed to hear, as I’d just been diagnosed with stage IIIc inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and particularly aggressive form of the disease. My inflammatory breast cancer diagnosis My gynecologist had dismissed the pain and swelling in my left breast as a reaction to birth control pills. He refused to perform any type of scan, even after I specifically requested one. That didn’t sit right with me, so I saw another doctor. Thinking I had an infection, he prescribed an antibiotic and said to come back for a biopsy if my symptoms hadn’t resolved in a couple of weeks. Getting conflicting information from two different doctors isn’t very reassuring, so I called MD Anderson. It was only after doctors there conducted their own tests that I learned the truth: at age 32, I had inflammatory breast cancer. Why the right diagnosis matters At MD Anderson, my inflammatory breast cancer treatment consisted of six months of outpatient chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy and...

Robotic surgery for cancer treatment: What patients should know

For cancer patients who require surgery as part of their treatment, our doctors sometimes rely on robotic surgery to help remove hard to reach tumors, shorten surgery times or lessen side effects for patients. These tools first made their appearance in the late 1990s and are becoming more and more common in operating rooms. Robotic surgery doesn’t mean that a robot is performing the operation. Instead, it refers to when surgeons direct the surgery using robotic tools. Robotic surgery systems use one or more robotic arms that surgeons control remotely and precisely using a nearby console. One robot arm has a laparoscope. Other arms hold tiny surgical instruments that can fit into an incision less than an inch long. The surgeon sits at a screen that provides 3-dimensional views of the tumor. A joystick similar to that for a video game precisely controls each robotic arm, which mimics the motions of the wrist and hand, providing dexterity. Like many other surgical techniques, robotic surgery can offer some benefits for patients and surgeons alike, but it may not always be the best method. Here’s what patients should know about this treatment option. Benefits of robotic surgery The robotic device used in surgery are known for having greater dexterity and range of motion than humans have using traditional laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, surgery. This allows surgeons to operate on hard-to-reach parts of the body, and get closer looks at hard-to-see places. At MD Anderson, our doctors use robotic surgery for removing the prostate, part of the kidney, as well as removing tumors in the colon, lung and uterus. Robotic devices are...

Reconstructive microsurgery: What patients should know

Sometimes our surgeons must perform life-altering surgeries to remove cancer. And, in many cases, cancer surgeries have the potential to dramatically change a patient’s physical appearance or lifestyle. But through reconstructive microsurgery, our plastic surgeons are often able to help patients return to their normal appearance or lifestyle. Microsurgery allows surgeons to perform procedures that were once impossible, and they’re using these tools to improve surgery every day. In fact, each year, MD Anderson’s 21 plastic surgeons perform more than 1,000 microsurgeries to reconstruct patients from head to toe. Many of these surgeries are breast reconstruction, when surgeons use the patient’s tissue to create new breasts after a mastectomy. But surgeons may also use this technique for reconstructing other parts of the body.   To learn more about microsurgery, we spoke with plastic surgeons Alexander Mericli, M.D., and Carrie Chu, M.D. Here’s what they had to say. What is microsurgery? Microsurgery gets its name because it refers to surgery performed using a microscope. During microsurgery, we use precise microsurgical instruments that allow us to reconnect very small blood vessels, nerves and lymphatic vessels with very tiny stitches – some thinner than a hair and difficult to see with the human eye. We often use microsurgery in conjunction with other surgeries, such as tumor removal and reconstruction, to reconstruct complicated areas that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Among other things, we use microsurgery to: reconstruct breast cancer patients’ breasts using tissue from their abdomen or other parts of their bodies rebuild jaws using a bone from the leg, shoulder, arm or hip, or reconstruct tongues with skin and fat from the...

Chondrosarcoma survivor helps other patients find their strength

In early 2009, Hilary McQuiston-Fall was enjoying an active lifestyle full of outdoor activities in San Francisco, California. But when the 26-year-old fell while snowboarding, she realized something wasn’t right. Doctors initially treated her for a broken tailbone, but months later, she was still dealing with pain and swelling. After a battery of tests, Hilary was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma in her right hip. Over the next six years, she received radiation therapy and went through several limb-salvage surgeries, but the cancer kept returning and spreading. “They believe it started in my iliac crest and took over my right side. It was growing over my leg, it was involved in my sciatic notch, femoral nerves — just everywhere,” explains Hilary. In 2015, her local doctor recommended she undergo a hemipelvectomy, a procedure that removes part of a patient’s pelvis and can include amputation of the leg. Through her research, she discovered MD Anderson’s Orthopaedic Oncology department has experts that specialize in this complex surgery. Confidence in MD Anderson’s expertise Hilary made contact with Dr. Justin Bird and spoke over the phone for weeks with his physician assistant, Jillian Chamberlain. Hilary vividly remembers when Dr. Bird called her with his final recommendation: an external hemipelvectomy, which would include amputation of her right leg. After a few weeks of careful thought and more research, she was ready to commit to the surgery and trust Dr. Bird’s experience and expertise. “Dr. Bird was very nice and patient with my decision-making. But I said, ‘No, I want to do it. Schedule me as soon as you can,’.” In March 2016, she underwent the 15-hour...

Q&A: Understanding our Cancer Genomics Laboratory Moon Shot platform

MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program™ is designed to reduce the time it takes to move promising cancer discoveries into the clinic, where they can help patients the most. The program focuses resources around 13 cancer types, called Moon Shots™, with the goal of using the knowledge we gain to advance treatment of all types of cancer. But how do researchers make cancer discoveries? And how do they know which discoveries are the most likely to have a major impact for patients? That’s where the Moon Shots Program’s Cancer Genomics Laboratory platform comes in. We spoke with Maggi Morgan, scientific manager, to learn more about the platform and how it impacts cancer research and treatment. Here’s what she had to say. What is the Cancer Genomics Laboratory? The Cancer Genomics Laboratory platform is a research lab that drives discovery and understanding of how tumors grow, spread and evolve. Our team provides researchers with data that may, in the future, guide personalized cancer treatment strategies and has the potential to make a significant impact on the detection, management and treatment of cancer. What is genomics, and how is it used in cancer research? Your complete set of DNA is called your genome. Almost every cell in your body, including a cancer cell, contains a copy of the 3 billion DNA base pairs, or letters (A, T, G and C), which string together to make up the genome. Genomics is the detailed study of these sequences of DNA that make up the genome. Cancer is caused by small changes in sequences of DNA. These changes are called mutations, which accumulate over time...