My salivary cancer diagnosis gave me a new appreciation for life

When I had an earache for a couple of weeks in August 2007 and couldn’t sleep on my right side for very long, I went to my primary care doctor. She told me I had an ear infection. I was given antibiotics and sent home. After a few weeks, I noticed a knot in my cheek, and it got even harder to sleep. I thought something else was wrong. My salivary cancer diagnosis I was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a type of salivary cancer on Oct. 10, 2007. I was emotional about my diagnosis, but I knew that I needed a plan to move forward. I received my diagnosis at another hospital, but I felt like I needed to go elsewhere for treatment. I wanted to feel confident in my care and know that my doctors cared about me as a person. My husband asked me, “Why aren’t we getting you treated at MD Anderson?” As an MD Anderson employee, he knew I’d receive attentive and specialized care. MD Anderson, he said, would give me the best chance to survive. My salivary cancer treatment at MD Anderson I first met with my MD Anderson care team on Oct. 29. On Dec. 6, I underwent a tracheostomy and mouth reconstruction to remove my tumors and rebuild the floor of my mouth. Before my surgery, I was a nervous wreck. I really appreciated physician assistant Rolando De Luna for how calm he kept me. He talked to me for 45 minutes the night before to help me get into the right mindset. After I had three tumors removed, my plastic...

After my acute myeloid leukemia treatment, check-ups feel like a reunion

I first came to MD Anderson in January 2013, after being diagnosed in Florida with acute myeloid leukemia. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would remain in Houston for eight months. I arrived at MD Anderson on a Tuesday morning, and met with my doctors and underwent tests all week. By late Friday night, I was being admitted to the hospital. My first round of chemotherapy began just a few hours later. I continued to receive treatment at MD Anderson for the next four months, in preparation for a stem cell transplant on April 19, 2013. I stayed in Houston for another 135 days after that, recovering. My MD Anderson doctors and staff provided me with such outstanding care and guidance over that 8-month period. Many of them became like family to me. When I return for a check-up now, it feels like I’m attending a reunion. Finding inspiration in other patients As an MD Anderson patient, you get to know other patients around you — if not by name, then at least by sight. Schedules overlap and faces become familiar. Stories are traded. You observe each other on good days and bad days, through hair loss, weight loss, being tired and praying it will all soon be done. I vividly recall one friendly couple, who were chatting with the people around them. The husband was leaning against an escalator rail while a friend and I were waiting for my lab appointment one morning. His wife was with him. The two of them made quite an impression in their Western attire; but what struck me the...

How does targeted therapy treat cancer?

Each cancer patient is unique. And when developing a cancer treatment plan, our doctors consider all of the things that make patients unique, including diagnosis, medical history and treatment preferences. Targeted therapy enables us to personalize cancer treatment even further by tailoring drugs to the genetic characteristics of a patient’s specific tumor. “Targeted therapy attacks the genetic change within the cancer cell regardless of the tumor type, so we don’t worry if it’s breast cancer, lung cancer or prostate cancer,” says Vivek Subbiah, M.D., clinical medical director of MD Anderson’s Clinical Center for Targeted Therapy. “We focus on the DNA of the cancer cells.” Sometimes referred to as precision medicine or as personalized medicine, targeted therapy aims to stop or slow the growth of cancer. Targeted therapy drugs are given either as a pill or through an IV. How targeted therapy personalizes cancer treatment Cancer develops when a normal cell’s genes change, causing the cell to quickly divide and multiply out of control. The change in the cell’s genes is called a mutation. About 5-10% of cancers are caused by genetic mutations passed from parent to child (such as BRCA1 and BRCA2), but many are caused by factors such as age, sun damage or tobacco use. No matter how the mutation forms, targeted therapy works the same. Targeted therapy is different than traditional chemotherapy. While chemotherapy kills all cells that multiply quickly regardless of whether they’re cancerous, targeted therapies are designed to find and slow the growth of the cells that have a particular mutation. The mutation is identified in a process called next-generation sequencing. During this process, a...

My thymoma treatment: Why I chose MD Anderson

When I found out I had thymoma — a rare tumor of the thymus gland — I knew I couldn’t stay in South Texas for my treatment. I’d been convinced for more than a decade that something was wrong with me, but nobody ever connected any of my symptoms with the mass growing slowly behind my sternum. Over the years, I’d seen a cardiologist for heart palpitations, a gastroenterologist for swallowing problems, an ophthalmologist for vision problems, a dermatologist for skin rashes, a neurologist for a facial weakness, an endocrinologist for thyroid problems and a rheumatologist for joint pain. It turns out all of those could’ve been caused by the tumor. But the only diagnoses I received were Hashimoto’s disease (a type of hypothyroidism) and Sjorgen’s syndrome. Both are considered autoimmune disorders. Then, in June 2018, I had a chest X-ray in preparation for a minor surgical procedure. It revealed a tumor the size of a tennis ball beneath my breastbone. My doctor wanted to refer me to yet another specialist: a thoracic surgeon. Instead, I called MD Anderson. As a school nurse, I knew that mine was an uncommon type of tumor, so I needed a higher level of expertise than I could find in Laredo. My thymoma treatment The following week, I traveled to Houston to meet with thoracic surgeon Dr. Mara Antonoff, pulmonary medicine specialist Dr. Edwin Ostrin and oncologist Dr. Phat Le at MD Anderson. They confirmed my chest tumor was an invasive thymoma and recommended chemotherapy to shrink it, then surgery to remove it. Unfortunately, the tumor didn’t respond much to chemotherapy. However, we...

Why I traveled 1,600 miles for breast cancer treatment

Until January 2016, I’d never heard of MD Anderson. I had no idea that it was considered the top hospital for cancer care in this country and possibly the world. But when the breast cancer I’d been treated for near my home in New York turned out to be stage IV rather than stage II, I started researching my options. At MD Anderson, I found the personalized breast cancer treatment I needed. Today, I have no evidence of disease.  My breast cancer diagnosis I was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year I turned 40. This was a surprise, as I had no family history of cancer, and I’d already had my first baseline mammogram, which was completely normal. But one evening in the spring of 2015, I felt a lump in my left breast. A biopsy showed it was invasive ductal carcinoma, a type of breast cancer. Based on the tumor’s size and location, it was only considered stage II. I started my treatment in New York by undergoing a double mastectomy. Unfortunately, three sentinel lymph nodes that were removed during the surgery tested positive for cancer. A PET scan taken shortly afterward showed that the breast cancer had already spread to a small spot on my pelvis. That changed my diagnosis from stage II to stage IV — which is considered incurable. In a matter of weeks, I’d gone from being an early-stage cancer patient to a cancer patient for life. It turned my world upside down. How I found my way to MD Anderson Since my cancer had only spread to one other place in my...