Metastatic melanoma survivor finds hope in clinical trials

Joey Nelson has always loved the sun. “I sailed growing up,” he says. “Every Saturday we’d go and I’d get sunburned like crazy, not even thinking about putting on sunscreen.” With fair skin, red hair and moles, Joey was already at increased risk for skin cancer, so he wasn’t exactly surprised by his melanoma diagnosis. The skin cancer first showed up on his leg in 1986. After having the melanoma removed with a skin graft and lymph node biopsy, he remained cancer-free for more than 20 years. During that time, Joey and his wife bought a 22-acre farm southwest of Houston, where they continued to spend time outdoors, tending to their cattle. In 2012, the cancer returned. Joey had several more surgeries and an isolated limb perfusion. But when the melanoma kept coming back, his sister urged him to come to MD Anderson. “She said this was the place to be,” Joey says. “There’s so much opportunity because they do so much research.” Immunotherapy clinical trials for melanoma In May 2013, Joey came to MD Anderson, where his doctor recommended an immunotherapy combination clinical trial. Since previous surgical and chemotherapy treatments had failed, Joey didn’t hesitate to try immunotherapy. “I’m optimistic,” he says. “The drugs were already approved; it was just the combination that was being tested in the trial.” Other than gaining water weight, the combination of a cytokine therapy and a peptide vaccine seemed to be keeping his melanoma under control. Joey spent a year rotating one week at MD Anderson for IV infusions, one week at home recovering and one week back at work. In March...

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor: MD Anderson saved my life three times

Statistically speaking, I shouldn’t be alive today. Since being diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 27, I’ve suffered two relapses. I’ve also had two stem cell transplants, 33 bone marrow biopsies, 186 CT scans and countless rounds of chemotherapy. You might think I wouldn’t enjoy a very good quality of life because of all that. But you’d be wrong. I’m an active, energetic, healthy 41-year-old. I’m also a wife and the mother of two beautiful children, ages 11 and 9. I do have some side effects from my cancer treatment, such as fatigue and recurrent sinus infections. But overall, my life today is full and happy. And I have MD Anderson to thank for it. My first non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis At the time of my first cancer diagnosis, I was in the best shape of my life. It was November 2004, and just a few months prior, I’d run my fastest marathon yet in San Diego. I was also in the process of training to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Then, while getting the necessary vaccinations and bloodwork done for my upcoming trip to Africa, I discovered that my platelets were at a life-threateningly low level. Within 18 hours, I was diagnosed with stage IV follicular lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And all my plans changed. My non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatment As a native Texan who grew up in San Antonio, I knew about MD Anderson’s amazing reputation. So there was never really a discussion as to where I’d go for my lymphoma treatment. My doctors there started me on chemotherapy right away, as my cancer was very aggressive...

Skull base tumor surgeon: Why you should come to MD Anderson first

As a surgeon, I am motivated by the challenge skull base tumors represent — both their complexity and the impact that they have on our patients. Because not that long ago, many of these tumors were considered incurable. Before skull base surgery was developed as a field, neurosurgeons would go as low as they could go, and head and neck surgeons would go as high as they could go. Both would stop at the skull base — the bony platform behind the eyes and nose that slopes down toward the back of the head. That meant sometimes part of a tumor got left behind — where it could grow right back. Today, we know that skull base tumors are curable. It takes many types of brain and spine and head and neck specialists working together to treat them effectively. But we do that here at MD Anderson. And being involved in that process is the most rewarding part of my job. Why skull base tumors are difficult to diagnose Skull base tumors are rare, so they are often difficult to diagnose. The average doctor will probably see less than a handful in their entire career. That’s why it’s important to seek treatment at a place like MD Anderson — because even rare tumors aren’t rare here. Patients frequently come to us with a particular diagnosis, but when we review their reports with our dedicated head and neck and neuropathologists, we sometimes come to a different conclusion. This happens more than 30% of the time. So, for one out of every three skull base tumor patients, we say, “Nope. You...

Liver cancer: What you should know

The liver is your body’s largest organ. It’s responsible for digestion, blood clotting and helping get rid of toxins. But unlike other organs, it has two blood sources. This makes the liver vulnerable to cancer cells moving through the bloodstream. The cancers that most commonly spread to the liver through the bloodstream are colorectal, breast and lung cancers. When cancer starts in the liver, it’s called hepatocellular carcinoma. This type of liver cancer can start as a single tumor or as multiple spots on the liver caused by heavy drinking, obesity or a long-term hepatitis infection. These conditions cause scarring and permanent damage, known as cirrhosis of the liver. To learn more about liver cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, we spoke with Emma Holliday, M.D. Here’s what she had to say. What are common symptoms of liver cancer? Many patients don’t experience any symptoms in the early stages of liver cancer. When symptoms do develop, they may include abdominal pain or bloating, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and yellowing of the skin or eyes, known as jaundice. Keep in mind that these symptoms vary from person to person. Are some people more likely to develop liver cancer? Hepatocellular carcinoma is more common in men than women, and the average age of diagnosis is 63. Patients with cirrhosis of the liver are more likely to develop hepatocellular carcinoma, so it’s important to understand what can lead to cirrhosis: Alcohol consumption: Alcohol should be avoided. Talk with your doctor about what that means for you. Chronic hepatitis infection: Hepatitis B and C increase your risk, so it’s important to seek treatment if you...

Liver cancer: What you should know

The liver is your body’s largest organ. It’s responsible for digestion, blood clotting and helping get rid of toxins. But unlike other organs, it has two blood sources. This makes the liver vulnerable to cancer cells moving through the bloodstream. The cancers that most commonly spread to the liver through the bloodstream are colorectal, breast and lung cancers. When cancer starts in the liver, it’s called hepatocellular carcinoma. This type of liver cancer can start as a single tumor or as multiple spots on the liver caused by heavy drinking, obesity or a long-term hepatitis infection. These conditions cause scarring and permanent damage, known as cirrhosis of the liver. To learn more about liver cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, we spoke with Emma Holliday, M.D. Here’s what she had to say. What are common symptoms of liver cancer? Many patients don’t experience any symptoms in the early stages of liver cancer. When symptoms do develop, they may include abdominal pain or bloating, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and yellowing of the skin or eyes, known as jaundice. Keep in mind that these symptoms vary from person to person. Are some people more likely to develop liver cancer? Hepatocellular carcinoma is more common in men than women, and the average age of diagnosis is 63. Patients with cirrhosis of the liver are more likely to develop hepatocellular carcinoma, so it’s important to understand what can lead to cirrhosis: Alcohol consumption: Alcohol should be avoided. Talk with your doctor about what that means for you. Chronic hepatitis infection: Hepatitis B and C increase your risk, so it’s important to seek treatment if you...