Stage IV kidney cancer survivor: Immunotherapy gave me hope

When I was in my 20s, people referred to cancer as the “Big C.” Back then, there weren’t many treatment options, and the prognosis wasn’t good.  But my recent stage IV kidney cancer diagnosis has shown me how far medicine has come over the last five decades. In March 2015, I developed a persistent dry cough. My family doctor spent five months trying to cure it. After nothing worked, he ordered a chest X-ray. It showed a mass in my lower left lung. A subsequent CT scan revealed the tumor was 8 centimeters long and pushing against my laryngeal nerve. When the scan also showed a mass at the top of my kidney, I underwent a CT scan of my abdomen that revealed a big tumor on my left kidney. At that point, my diagnosis was clear: I had kidney cancer — specifically, stage IV renal cell carcinoma. Seeking metastatic kidney cancer treatment The first urologist I saw gave me only a 10-15% chance for survival, even with treatment. He recommended I start arranging for hospice care. But my family and I weren’t going to give up. My children connected me with a surgeon who agreed to perform a total nephrectomy, which would get rid of 95% of my cancer. I jumped at the opportunity, and on Sept. 16, 2015, underwent surgery to have my left kidney entirely removed. During a follow-up appointment, that oncologist referred me to MD Anderson, which was close to my home in Brenham, Texas. He knew the doctors there would be equipped to handle my case. That afternoon, we received a call from MD...

5 ways breast cancer treatment has changed

As a nurse navigator at MD Anderson in The Woodlands, I get to connect with breast cancer patients just as they’re contacting MD Anderson for the first time to schedule an appointment. My job is to make sure I have a good understanding of the events leading up to their diagnosis and that we’re scheduling them to see the most appropriate physicians first. I also spend time educating patients about their diagnoses and what they can expect during treatment. Every person’s diagnosis is unique A patient with a new cancer diagnosis can have a lot of fears and questions related to treatment. And with breast cancer being the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women, many of us have a close friend or family member who’s already been treated for this disease. So, when the word “cancer” is mentioned, all of our past experiences color how we think and feel about the disease today. That’s why I typically stress two things during my initial phone call with patients. The first is that every person’s diagnosis is unique. It’s almost impossible to compare one patient and their treatment course to another, even if they appear to have the exact same diagnosis. The second (and perhaps most important) is that we have come such a long way in the 18 years I’ve been a nurse. Researchers continue to make advances every day, so you won’t necessarily be offered the same treatment your friend or family member had 20 years — or even six months — ago. The biggest changes I’ve seen Just a few of the advances that have significantly changed how...

Plastic surgeon: Why I wouldn’t work anyplace but MD Anderson

Working with breast cancer patients can be a challenge. Because while some are coming to us for the very first time for their treatment, others have already received treatment — including one or more surgeries — elsewhere. That means they may already be dealing with pain, scarring or other side effects, all of which we need to take into account before deciding on a plan of action. That’s why, at MD Anderson, we tailor our treatment to the needs of every patient — because each one’s situation is unique. My strategy for communicating with patients The key to working with patients effectively is not to overwhelm them. It’s important to discuss both their expectations and our expectations early on, so we can meet as many of those as we can. Ideally, this will happen through multiple conversations over time. Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming — both for our patients and their families — and it’s hard to take in everything all at once. Having multiple conversations about care, treatment and recovery is also important because when you’re a cancer patient at MD Anderson, you aren’t just meeting with one doctor to discuss your disease or treatment plans. You’re meeting with a surgical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, a plastic surgeon and many other specialists who will play key roles in your treatment and recovery. And as healing evolves, so must our plans. Innovation is the key to plastic surgery, and we have so many different tools we can use now that were not available 10 or even five years ago. Today, for instance, advanced microsurgical techniques enable us...

Liposarcoma survivor: Cancer won’t stop me from achieving my goals

Before my liposarcoma diagnosis in November 2017, I was spending a lot of time at the gym. My focus was on improving my physical strength and overall well-being. But I was also sharing my workouts and recipes on social media, in hopes of inspiring others. I started noticing that my right thigh looked bigger around September of last year. With all the strength training and conditioning I’d been doing, I just assumed the bulge was a muscle. And since it wasn’t causing me any pain or discomfort, I didn’t worry about it. But after I filmed a workout video and posted it on social media, I received several messages from concerned viewers about it. It was particularly noticeable after I was stepping out of the shower one day, so I knew I needed to get it checked out. I got an MRI at the hospital where I work as a nurse. I was on the treadmill when my doctor called me with the results. She said she thought I had a soft tissue cancer called liposarcoma. From that moment on, my life changed. My soft tissue sarcoma treatment I cried and barely ate for days after my cancer diagnosis. I was only 42, and all I could think about was my two sons. I knew I needed to fight for them. I also wanted to go to the best place possible. So, I called MD Anderson. I got an appointment with Dr. Maria Zarzour. She recommended six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy. I knew even before I met her that I wanted to be...

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor confronts cancer with faith, attitude

Most people don’t look back on their cancer experience with fondness. But Jacqueline Wallace is not most people. The 60-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee, is a wife, mother and registered nurse. She’s also a survivor of stage IV diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I actually enjoyed my time at MD Anderson,” Jacqueline says. “I loved it.” Facing lymphoma with joy During her treatment at MD Anderson, Jacqueline treated her trips to Houston as getaways — bringing enough luggage to make her husband look like a bellhop at a ritzy hotel when he unloaded the car.  “I can’t control that I have cancer, but I can control my attitude, my disposition and my outlook,” Jacqueline says. That meant making MD Anderson a home away from home. The first thing she did upon arrival was accessorize her hospital room from floor to ceiling: with a red carpet, red pillows and a red throw. Jacqueline also ignored the diet most nutritionists recommend for cancer patients, instead opting for prime rib and as much dessert as she wanted. “If this was my lot, then I was going to enjoy it and make it a positive experience,” Jacqueline says. A B-cell lymphoma diagnosis Jacqueline was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma in 2015, after noticing a lump in her groin the day before Thanksgiving. She requested an appointment at MD Anderson while she waited for the results of some diagnostic tests. “I’d already decided if it was lymphoma, I wanted to go to MD Anderson, because that’s the premiere place to go for this type of cancer,” Jacqueline says. Treatment for B-cell lymphoma...