How I dealt with my worst lung cancer symptom and side effect

I didn’t even know I had stage IV lung cancer until I went to my doctor in September 2016 for back pain. A CT scan revealed large tumors on my left adrenal gland and right lung. They were taking up so much space in my chest and abdominal cavity that they were literally getting on my nerves. For me, the pain caused by those tumors and the itchy skin rash I developed as a side effect of immunotherapy were the hardest parts of having cancer. But I don’t want cancer to define me. Here’s how I dealt with both of those issues. Finding a pain reliever I could tolerate Most people can go to a doctor and say, “Hey, I’m hurting. Please give me a drug.” But I’m very medication-sensitive, and almost all pain medicine makes me sick. So if I take even one pill, I’ll be puking for hours. It’s just the way I am. I’ve been that way my entire life. As you can imagine, that makes it pretty hard for doctors to come up with a medication cocktail I can tolerate. Dr. Bonnie Glisson, my doctor at MD Anderson, finally ended up going with an old-school anti-nausea medication called Compazine and a half-dose of a new pain medicine called dilaudid. My back pain remained an issue until pembolizumab, the immunotherapy drug I began taking, started to shrink my tumors. But once we got the pain under control, I could focus on other things. So then, we dealt with the rash. Managing an itchy rash caused by immunotherapy The immunotherapy drug I’m on causes my skin to...

Stage IV melanoma survivor: An immunotherapy clinical trial saved my life

In 2006, I didn’t have any of the typical signs of melanoma: just a small bump on the top of my head behind my hairline. After a biopsy determined it was cancerous, a surgical oncologist removed it, along with some adjacent lymph nodes on both sides of my neck. After that, I enjoyed three years of being cancer-free. I really thought I’d dodged a bullet, because the tumor was removed with clear margins and none of the nearby lymph nodes had any signs of cancer. But three years later, a chest X-ray showed shadowing and spots on my lungs. The melanoma had spread. I had three separate lung surgeries over an 18-month period to remove new growths, but the cancer kept returning. By 2011, I had tumors on my lungs, pancreas and liver. One was also growing behind my heart. My oncologist told me there was nothing more he could do. Not being satisfied with that answer, I began to search for alternatives.   Why I participated in an immunotherapy clinical trial I wanted to give myself the absolute best chance for survival, so I sought out the best place for cancer treatment. MD Anderson is known for its advanced treatment options. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s been ranked No. 1 in cancer treatment year after year. At MD Anderson, I met with Dr. Patrick Hwu. After agreeing on a plan of action, he ordered tests to see if I qualified for any kind of targeted therapy. Unfortunately, I was not a good match, so the waiting and search for a viable option continued.   Then...

How we’re developing the next generation of physician assistants

For anyone looking to change careers, questions abound. Am I making the right decision? Will going back to school full-time pay off? What’s my dream job really like day to day? For MD Anderson employees looking to become physician assistants (PA), the answers are close at hand, because the institution has a team of mentors ready to share their experiences and guide current employees through the PA school application process. “The application process for PA school is selective and difficult. Only about a third of the applicants are accepted,” says Jocelyn Mitchell, who worked as a research assistant before linking up with a PA mentor. Mitchell is now a PA in MD Anderson’s Gastrointestinal Center.   “With a mentorship program like this, we’re helping aspiring PAs stand out during the application process and be successful in their new chosen field,” she says. Physician assistants: a growing profession MD Anderson’s physician assistant mentoring program began in 2013, as clinics were growing — and with them, the need for more advance practice providers. Today, MD Anderson employs 325 PAs – more than any other organization in the U.S. – and the growth continues. “It can be hard to find enough qualified candidates for all of our PA openings,” says Katie DeLucia, associate director in the PA office. “We began this program as a way to recruit from within and guide employees who want the opportunity for growth to get degrees and come back to MD Anderson as practicing physician assistants.” Each mentee is assigned a current PA as their mentor, and they meet monthly to discuss the mentee’s application to PA...

Pathology report gives prostate cancer survivor more treatment options

Even though several of Kelly Andersen’s relatives had faced prostate cancer, his own diagnosis in September 2013 came unexpectedly. He’d never experienced any symptoms. His doctor diagnosed the disease only after routine bloodwork done during his annual physical exam detected elevated PSA levels. “I asked the doctor if it could just be a mistake, and he said he’d asked the lab to run it twice because my level was so high,” Kelly recalls. Subsequent CT and MRI scans confirmed Kelly’s disease and showed that it’d spread to several lymph nodes around his body. His oncologist in Oregon, where he lives, prescribed four rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumors. His PSA level dropped to below .05, but when it came time for surgery, the two surgeons with whom he’d previously met refused to operate on him. They told him that because he had small cell neuroendocrine carcinoma in addition to adenocarcinoma, his disease was too aggressive for surgery to matter. “I came back home pretty discouraged,” Kelly recalls. Getting a second opinion at MD Anderson But he didn’t give up. After speaking with his family doctor and doing some research on the internet, Kelly sent MD Anderson his records. “MD Anderson got back to me within just a few days,” Kelly says. In January 2014, Kelly flew to Houston to see genitourinary oncologist Jennifer Wang, M.D., and surgeon Louis Pisters, M.D. Immediately, Wang ordered a new set of CT and MRI scans. “One of the things I really appreciated with Dr. Wang and MD Anderson is that when I was in Oregon, I had to wait 8-10 days to...

Breast cancer survivor: Don’t dismiss your father’s side when looking at family history

Some people think you can only get breast cancer from your mother’s side of the family. But that’s a myth. Breast cancer can come just as easily from your father’s side. Want proof? The genetic mutation that led to my own stage III breast cancer diagnosis last summer came from my dad. Genetic testing confirmed it. And once we started digging into his family history, we discovered that breast cancer was everywhere. In fact, I’d always been told that his mother, who’d passed away before I was born, died of stomach cancer. Now, we believe she either had breast cancer or ovarian cancer, and it spread to her stomach. My triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis My own breast cancer diagnosis came as a pretty big surprise. It was June 2017, and I’d been feeling great. I’d just had my annual well-woman exam, but since I wasn’t quite 40 at the time, I hadn’t scheduled my first mammogram yet. A week or so later, I felt a large lump in my left armpit while taking a shower. It hadn’t been there when I’d seen my gynecologist, so I called him. He told me to come back in and we’d do the mammogram a few months early. Before I’d even left my doctor’s office, the radiologist said I needed an ultrasound. It turned out I had cancer in my left breast, and it had already spread to a nearby lymph node. But the original tumor was still so small, no one could feel it. So, that lymph node probably saved my life. Why I chose MD Anderson for my breast cancer treatment...