How a childhood brain tumor ignited a passion for nursing and breast cancer patient education

Abbey Kaler’s earliest memories of MD Anderson aren’t exactly fond ones. It’s the place she returned to dozens of times for follow-up care after being diagnosed with a childhood brain tumor. “No matter how long it’d been since my last appointment, I was scared out of my mind because I was going from normal-kid life back to sick-kid life for 48 hours,” Abbey says. But there was a bright spot during the visits: “The nurses were always so nice and warm. They helped put me as much at ease as was possible during such a scary time.” It was Abbey’s experience with the nurses at MD Anderson’s Robin Bush Child and Adolescent Center that led her to a career in nursing, and back to MD Anderson, where she now works as a nurse practitioner and patient navigator in the Advanced Breast Cancer Clinic. Early brain tumor symptoms Abbey’s brain tumor symptoms began when she was nine. At first, her parents thought the headaches, vomiting and exhaustion were due to playing too hard outdoors in the Texas heat. Fortunately, she happened to be scheduled for a routine pediatrician appointment on the day her symptoms escalated. “I fainted, and when I came to, I had tunnel vision,” Abbey says. Her mom took her to the doctor, who recommended consulting a neurologist, but the first available appointment was weeks away. Sensing that her daughter’s condition was urgent, Abbey’s mother took her to the emergency room. There, a CT scan revealed a brain tumor in Abbey’s cerebellum, the lower, rear portion of the brain. Juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma: a rare brain tumor After two...

The importance of observing milestones

One year, cancer-free. It was hard to believe it, even as I typed those words on Dec. 13, 2018. I never knew I could feel so overjoyed to be rid of something I never thought I’d have in the first place. But one year ago on that day, after finishing treatment for sarcoma, I was declared cancer-free by my doctors at MD Anderson. And every day since then has brought a little more healing, both physically and emotionally. At the same time, my heartstrings are continually being pulled, because now, I’m the one on the sidelines, encouraging and praying for those facing the same battle I once did. Shifting my perspective after a sarcoma diagnosis I think celebrating milestones is important when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. It was hard for me to do at first, because I found myself looking back and noticing how different things are today from the future I’d previously envisioned. I had to grieve the loss of that dream. But once I took a step back and changed my perspective, I could see how far I’d come and appreciate my life in a new way, as well as the many blessings that came with it. Suddenly, I felt triumphant and victorious. And that realization gave me more motivation than ever to celebrate. Adopting an attitude of gratitude To commemorate my one-year anniversary of being cancer-free, my husband took me to my favorite place on Earth: Walt Disney World. Even though I’m 29, being able to laugh and play like a kid again was magical beyond words. In a way, I do feel like a...

4 scientists explain what attracted them to cancer drug development

"From the bench to the bedside" is a phrase often used to describe the drug discovery journey from the lab to the clinic. MD Anderson's Therapeutics Discovery division, however, takes a different approach, by beginning with the bench at the bedside. This cancer drug discovery engine conducts research that is influenced by patients from the very start. "We are completely driven by the unmet treatment needs we see in patients who come to MD Anderson for help," says Phil Jones, Ph.D., vice president of Therapeutics Discovery. "Guided by the expertise of our world-class clinicians, our efforts begin with the patient and their cancer." The benefits of an in-house cancer drug discovery model Composed of three Moon Shots Program™ platforms and the Neurodegeneration Consortium, Therapeutics Discovery is working hard to bring life-saving medicines to patients quickly, safely and effectively. These medicines range from new chemical compounds to antibodies and cell-based therapies. Unlike typical pharmaceutical companies, Therapeutics Discovery was built here at MD Anderson, reducing the time it takes for a new drug to start benefitting our cancer patients. It's a recipe for success that is already yielding promising treatment results. And at the heart of it all are more than 100 scientists, driven by a passion to see their work one day save a patient's life. Inventing new ways to treat cancer and help patients The Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS) is devoted to inventing new small-molecule drugs, or chemical compounds, that target specific vulnerabilities in cancer cells. Mick Soth, Ph.D., is a lead chemist for one of IACS’ drug discovery projects. He’s responsible for designing the safest and...

7 glioblastoma myths

Glioblastoma is the most common and aggressive primary brain tumor in adults. Although it’s considered a rare cancer, with about 12,000 new diagnoses each year, it’s gained increased visibility recently with the diagnoses of a few high-profile people.  As a neuro-oncologist and the clinical medical director of MD Anderson’s Brain and Spine Center, part of my job is to make sure glioblastoma patients and their families understand this disease and how it will affect them. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned, there are many myths and misconceptions about glioblastoma. Here’s the truth about seven glioblastoma myths I commonly hear. 1. Myth: Cell phones cause glioblastoma. Fact: Cell phones don’t cause brain cancer. Several different studies have failed to find clear evidence of a link between cell phone use and brain cancer. The number of people diagnosed with glioblastoma has remained largely stable over the past decade, while cell phone use has continued to increase. 2. Myth: There’s nothing you can do for an “inoperable” glioblastoma. Fact: A tumor that’s considered “inoperable” at a hospital without specialized brain tumor programs may actually be operable if you seek treatment at a cancer center with the right expertise. Here at MD Anderson, our neurosurgeons successfully operate on many patients who thought their tumors were inoperable. We treat glioblastoma patients every day and have a great deal of experience and expertise in safely removing tumors. This includes glioblastomas involving brain regions responsible for important functions, such as language or movement. Certain brain tumors that cannot be safely surgically removed may qualify for laser interstitial thermal therapy (LITT). This minimally invasive surgical procedure uses thermal heat to destroy...

Stage IV salivary gland cancer survivor: How proton therapy saved my career

It’s difficult to say that someone is “the best” at something, especially when it comes to sports. How do you determine the No. 1 golfer? Since it’s based on performance, it might be one person this week, and a different one the next. But when it comes to cancer treatment, I think there’s a clear leader: MD Anderson. I’d always heard it was the No. 1 cancer treatment center in the world. But I don’t think I really understood what that meant until I was diagnosed with stage IV salivary gland cancer in August 2015. My salivary gland cancer diagnosis I discovered I had cancer after going to my dermatologist about a little bump on my neck. It was just below my left ear, and I thought it was a swollen lymph node caused by a sinus infection. But antibiotics didn’t shrink it, and my dermatologist didn’t like the look of it, so he sent me to a local head and neck specialist. That doctor ordered an MRI, which revealed a two-inch tumor on my parotid gland. It was wrapped around a major nerve that controls the facial muscles. I had stage IV mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a very rare type of salivary gland cancer. How I came to MD Anderson I was beyond fear when I got that news. A quick internet search showed the survival rates for my type of cancer were staggeringly bad. And mine was far enough advanced that even my specialist said I needed to go to a bigger cancer center for proper treatment. He referred me to a facility in Chicago, where I grew up....