Hereditary leukemia syndromes: What patients and their families should know

Certain genetic changes, or mutations, can increase a person’s chances of developing cancer. These changes, known as hereditary cancer syndromes, can be passed down from parent to child. Hereditary leukemia is one of the newest areas our experts are studying. Courtney DiNardo, M.D., and genetic counselor Sarah Bannon with MD Anderson’s Hereditary Leukemia Clinic are among a handful of health care providers worldwide specializing in hereditary leukemia syndromes. They recently spoke with us about hereditary leukemia and what having one of these syndromes means for patients and their family members. Here’s what they had to say. What genes cause hereditary leukemia? Researchers have identified about a dozen unique syndromes for hereditary leukemia, and that list is growing every year. For a long time, leukemia was thought to be sporadic and not hereditary, even though it clearly ran in some families. In 2008, one of the first genes linked to leukemia — RUNX1 — was identified and became available for genetic testing in 2008. People who inherit changes in the RUNX1 gene can face a higher risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The RUNX1 mutation can also cause the carrier to have a lower platelet count, which plays an important role in blood clotting. Once that gene was identified, more major research was conducted to see if there were more gene mutations linked to hereditary leukemia. These efforts have paid off. Of these dozen or so genes, about nine of them have been discovered since 2013. We’ve found that these genes can cause different types of leukemia and related conditions, including AML, myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and...

Ovarian cancer survivor: I found hope at MD Anderson

If it wasn’t for my daughter’s dog, I might never have found out that I had ovarian cancer. And if it wasn’t for MD Anderson, I might not still be here today. Here’s my story. My ovarian cancer symptoms I was walking my daughter’s 65-pound Rottweiler last May, when the dog suddenly jumped up and knocked me to the ground. The left side of my body was numb when I stood up, but I didn’t seem to be hurt, so I shook it off and kept going. Ten days later, I broke out in an excruciating rash in that same area. It was so painful that I went to an emergency room. I was diagnosed with shingles. The ER doctor prescribed a pain reliever and an antiviral medication. It took eight weeks for the rash to disappear. After it was gone, I noticed a painful lump on the left side of my abdomen. I thought maybe I’d injured myself in the fall after all, so I found a surgeon in my network and made an appointment. When I saw the surgeon a few days later, he said I probably had a hernia, but he’d set up a CT scan just to be sure. He called me a few hours after the scan and said I needed to come in right away for the results. I had no idea what was going on, but I did what he said. The surgeon told me that I had bilateral ovarian cancer. My ovaries were huge on both sides. I asked him what I should do. He recommended getting my affairs in order....

Stage III triple-negative breast cancer survivor: How I handled treatment side effects

After being diagnosed with stage III triple-negative breast cancer in the summer of 2017, I was treated at MD Anderson with a combination of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. I experienced a number of side effects from those treatments, including skin burns, lymphedema, fatigue and bone pain. Most of them are resolved now, but thankfully, the ones that remain aren’t very bad. Dealing with lymphedema and radiation burns The most painful side effect I experienced was probably radiation burns. Those left my skin feeling pretty raw, but applying a salve and medicated pads helped a lot. I also experienced bone pain from the Neulasta® shots I received during chemo to keep my white blood cell counts up. My joints hurt like I had the flu for several days after each injection, but exercise reduced that to just one. The most annoying side effect I experienced was probably lymphedema, which is when fluid builds up around tissues where lymph nodes have been removed. I developed that in my left arm after having 34 lymph nodes removed surgically from my chest and neck area. I could usually get the swelling down by stretching and wearing a compression sleeve. Staying hydrated helped, too. I run every day, so I drink a lot of water, and I noticed when my water intake was low, the lymphedema was worse. The hardest part of my breast cancer treatment The hardest part of my treatment was undoubtedly chemotherapy. My cancer was very aggressive, so my doctors hit me with the hardest chemo they had and it absolutely wiped me out. It was really rough. I only...

Small cell ovarian cancer survivor grateful for life and new beginnings

At 26, small cell ovarian cancer was the last thing on Tabby Soignier’s mind. She wasn’t familiar with ovarian cancer symptoms, but she knew the bloating, pain and headaches she’d been experiencing meant something was wrong. A small cell ovarian cancer diagnosis In the summer of 2011, Tabby was busy working as a sports reporter and getting ready for her brother’s wedding. She was going to be a bridesmaid and wanted to get in shape. But no matter how healthy her diet was or how much she exercised, she just couldn’t seem to lose the weight. On top of that, she was feeling bloated and had been suffering headaches. She decided to visit a walk-in clinic in her Louisiana hometown. The clinic doctor conducted an ultrasound and said that Tabby’s uterus had grown so much that much it looked like she was 20 weeks pregnant. But Tabby knew she wasn’t pregnant. At the clinic doctor’s suggestion, she scheduled an appointment with her gynecologist. Tabby’s doctor conducted an ultrasound and found a 15 cm tumor wrapped around her right ovary. The doctor said she needed surgery to remove the tumor and her ovary right away. Not wanting to waste any time, Tabby opted to have it that night. Two days later, the doctor told Tabby her tumor was malignant. A week later, after a pathologist studied the tumor, she learned she had a rare type of cancer: small cell ovarian carcinoma. Tabby and her family knew right away she needed to seek treatment at MD Anderson. “If you’re going to go through something like this, you want the best,” she...

Q&A: Understanding our Immunotherapy platform

MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program™ increases the speed at which our experts turn their research into new cancer treatment options for patients. At the core of this ambitious initiative are 10 research platforms, which provide the 13 disease-specific Moon Shots with specialized equipment, knowledge and data analysis tools. To learn how the platform impacts our immunotherapy research and cancer treatment, we spoke with the Immunotherapy platform team, which is led by Jim Allison, Ph.D., Patrick Hwu, M.D., and Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D. What is immunotherapy? Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. One type of immunotherapy, called immune checkpoint inhibitors, provides lasting cures to a subset of patients with specific cancers, including: Bladder cancer Hodgkin’s lymphoma Kidney cancer Head and neck cancers Melanoma Merkel cell carcinoma Non-small cell lung cancer Currently, not all patients benefit from immunotherapy, but through clinical trials, our experts are learning how to make this treatment more effective. How does the platform contribute to our mission of ending cancer? Our goal is to make immunotherapy a standard treatment option for many more types of cancers and patients. To expand the use of immunotherapy, we’re working to: identify the patients most likely to benefit from current immunotherapies, investigate why immunotherapy works for some patients and types of cancers but not others, and develop new immunotherapies and powerful combinations of existing therapies. We’re testing tumor and blood samples taken from patients treated on immunotherapy clinical trials to achieve these goals. The information we gather from analyzing these samples allows us to identify biomarkers that predict the likelihood that a...