Why I took a chance on immunotherapy

MD Anderson’s Dr. Patrick Hwu often tells me that if he could write a cancer success story, he would want it to read just like mine. Why? Because my treatment for stage IV kidney cancer in 2014 is the perfect example of what makes MD Anderson special. My story involves a determined oncologist, a talented surgeon, and a potent immunotherapy drug. All together, they have kept me cancer-free for nearly five years. My stage IV kidney cancer diagnosis When the kidney cancer I’d originally been treated for in Austin returned three years later, I was given a less than 5% chance of surviving. The emergency room doctor who diagnosed me said the disease had already spread to my spleen, pancreas, lungs, colon, appendix and bladder. And once cancer gets to that point (stage IV), he told me, it usually can’t be cured — only managed. But this time, I went to MD Anderson. And my oncologist there, Dr. Jianjun Gao, wasn’t satisfied with just giving me a pill to slow the cancer down. Something about my situation kept nagging at him, even after my first appointment. Dr. Gao later told me that he couldn’t stop thinking about my situation, so right after I left his office, he approached his chairman of the Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology, Dr. Christopher Logothetis, to discuss my case. Drs. Logothetis and Gao recommended a regimen involving an immunotherapy drug called “interleukin 2” (IL-2). It was already being used to treat melanoma, but it could also be used to treat kidney cancer. When Dr. Gao told me about IL-2, I was excited to have...

Oral cancer survivor: personalized maxillofacial prosthodontist treatment helped me

When Patricia Lines came to MD Anderson for her first appointment in 2012, she was impressed by the way all the different parts of her care team worked together to create her treatment plan. From her oncologist to her surgeon to the oral oncology and maxillofacial prosthetics team, each one of them was familiar with her case and had discussed the best treatment for her squamous cell carcinoma of the premaxilla, a type of oral cancer. Throughout her cancer treatment, they continued to give personal and tailor-made solutions. “During my cancer treatment I was totally at ease with the people taking care of me,” she says. “I knew they were going to do the right thing. I just knew it.”   Choosing MD Anderson for oral cancer treatment Patricia received her diagnosis in August 2012. For years, she had suffered from a chronic infection near her front teeth. No matter how many times it was treated, it kept coming back. Finally, her dentist performed a biopsy. The results showed Patricia had cancer. Local surgeons outlined a neck dissection surgery and a tracheotomy. “That just didn’t sound right to me,” Patricia says. She decided to seek a second opinion at MD Anderson. Here, the first thing she noticed was the coordination of care. Back home in California, she had to travel from facility to facility to talk to an oncologist, then a surgeon and then a dentist. “At MD Anderson, everyone was under one roof,” she says. Her care team recommended that she participate in a clinical trial for a chemotherapy drug, and a complete neck dissection would not be necessary....

Can exercise make chemotherapy more effective?

You already knew exercise can help prevent cancer. But what if it could help you fight your cancer? Researchers are looking into how exercise can help get chemotherapy into solid tumors more efficiently, helping lead our patients toward better outcomes. Moderate exercise shows promise for improving cancer treatment Tumor vascularity, the structure of the blood vessels within a solid tumor, can differ wildly from the vasculature in healthy tissues. Keri Schadler, Ph.D., has been studying the formation and function of blood vessels in tumors since she was a doctoral student here at the MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School. “One of the biggest issues with improving delivery of chemotherapy to solid tumors is that only about half of the blood vessels are functional and mature enough to deliver the drugs,” she says. “We’re working on ways to improve the function of the blood vessels so we can get chemotherapy to the places that need it most – the tumors.” Her lab’s work in mouse models is based on the premise that an increase in blood flow encourages blood vessels to grow and mature, and the best way to reliably increase blood flow is through exercise. Schadler and her colleagues have shown that mice with pancreatic cancer, melanoma and Ewing’s sarcoma have better outcomes and better responses to low dose chemotherapy when on an exercise regimen. “Moderate exercise five days a week was shown to be effective,” she says. “We’re still trying to determine whether it’s frequency or intensity that is most important, but our preclinical studies intentionally use very moderate exercise.” That’s good news for our patients, who often experience...

3 myths about inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s natural reaction to infection or injury. But because of misinformation circulating in the media, there’s confusion about whether inflammation is healthy or harmful. We recently asked Stephanie Watowich, Ph.D., co-director of MD Anderson’s Center for Inflammation and Cancer, about common myths surrounding inflammation and what cancer patients should know. Here’s what she shared. Myth: Inflammation is one condition. Truth: The term inflammation actually refers to many different processes in the body. “When the medical community talks about inflammation, we aren’t just talking about one thing, one organ or even the same type of inflammation,” Watowich says. Inflammation is a local or systematic reaction from the cells in our immune system, but research has shown that there are different types of inflammation and that cells from other parts of the body are also involved. For example, the cells that line our blood vessels and the cells that line our skin also have inflammatory responses, so we know that it’s a more broad reaction that can involve cells throughout the body. Myth: Inflammation is bad. Truth: “Inflammation has a bad rap,” Watowich says. “But the truth is that we couldn’t live without it.” But inflammation isn’t strictly good or bad. It can be either, depending on how long the inflammation lasts. Small flare-ups of inflammation are good since it’s our immune system working to heal our bodies, but chronic inflammation can be a sign of something more concerning such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes or even cancer. “I encourage cancer patients to think of inflammation broadly,” Watowich says. “We have to understand inflammation in its context...

Melanoma survivor: Protect your skin

I usually don’t consider myself fair-skinned, because I used to tan pretty easily. But I’ve seen pictures of myself badly sunburned as a kid, so that’s probably a more accurate description than I’d like to think. I grew up mostly near the Texas coast, and my family was always outside. I only remember using suntan lotion occasionally. It didn’t offer any UV protection, since SPF wasn’t even a thing yet back then. I wasn’t aware that I needed it. My first melanoma diagnosis I was first diagnosed with melanoma in February 2016 at age 56. My wife had noticed an unusual spot on my back about six months earlier and asked me to have it looked at. I didn’t see a dermatologist until it changed dramatically in size and appearance, and began draining a clear fluid. Then I had a punch biopsy. The results showed it was melanoma. My first reaction was disbelief. Then I felt angry because I hadn’t seen a doctor about it sooner. Eventually, I felt sadness, because I knew it was something that could eventually kill me. Fortunately, the cancer wasn’t very advanced then, and I was able to have it removed surgically. My dermatologist sent my biopsy results to MD Anderson, and I had my first appointment there on Feb. 4, 2016. My surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Gershenwald, removed the cancerous lesion and two of my lymph nodes that same day. The melanoma hadn’t spread yet, so I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation. My second melanoma diagnosis I was considered cancer-free until two years later, when I had a CT scan for an unrelated condition....