5 tips for thriving after an unexpected medical retirement

Some people work all of their adult lives anticipating the joys of retirement. Planned retirement can be very exciting. But unplanned retirement — particularly due to a cancer diagnosis — can be overwhelming. My acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis forced me to take an early retirement from teaching seventh grade civics in 2013. But everything in life is an adjustment. This was just one more. Although it took a little while for me to find my way, now I couldn’t be more content. Perseverance has allowed me to flourish. Here are five other things I’ve done that have helped me adjust. Think positive It’s important to acknowledge the down days, but don’t dwell on them. Try to look on the bright side and find something to smile about each day: practice your faith, give thanks, take a walk or do something for others. Even clean house to release pent-up energy. It will make you feel good! I’m convinced that my attitude had a tremendous impact on my recovery from leukemia, as well as my adjustment to no longer working. Get involved Take up a hobby or volunteer for a cause close to your heart. Rekindle a passion or learn something new and seek out others with the same interests. Check with your local senior center for computer, art or exercise classes, as well as lectures. I’ve learned how to make baskets, joined a book club and am eager to start taking dance lessons. I’ve always wanted to learn the fox trot, cha-cha, tap and other styles. Be sociable Nurture your friendships, both new and old. Call up your friends and...

Medulloblastoma survivor: Why I continue to share my brain cancer story

I’m only 22, but I’ve already lived in so many places. Originally, I’m from El Paso, but I go to school now in College Station, which is about 13 hours away from there. I also spent a lot of time in Houston in 2013 and 2014, while I was being treated at MD Anderson for medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer. It may sound kind of cheesy, but I actually feel the most alive when I’m in the Texas Medical Center. As soon as I see the MD Anderson buildings, I take a deep breath and relax. I know they saved my life once, and they could do it again if they had to. They’ve already given me a second chance at life that I couldn’t get anywhere else. My brain cancer diagnosis I was not quite 16 in August 2013, when I was diagnosed with medulloblastoma. And when you hear the words “brain cancer,” your mind immediately jumps to the worst-case scenario. I know that’s what mine did. Especially because my prognosis was considered so iffy by my local hospital. Luckily, my family took me to MD Anderson for treatment. I had surgery to remove the tumor, followed by a year of chemotherapy and 30 days of proton therapy. And aside from a staph infection I caught in 2016 (from dyeing my hair red — whoops!), my recovery has been pretty unremarkable. The scariest thing about having cancer was actually going back home between treatments. Because at MD Anderson, everybody is OK with people being bald. It’s nothing remarkable or even that unusual. But in El Paso, it...

Ringing the bell marks a milestone in cancer treatment

For Bridget Reeves, ringing the bell after completing six months of chemotherapy for breast cancer was “a big deal.” Soldiering through nausea, exhaustion and nerve damage, she’d juggled chemo and her job as an MD Anderson clinical studies coordinator for 13 weeks before finally taking leave when she could no longer feel her foot on the brake pedal driving home. Even through the worst of it, the sound of other patients ringing the bell never failed to lift her spirits. “I’d think, ‘Yeah, that’s going to be me. I’m almost there,’” she recalls. When her turn came to ring the bell, she felt both relief that the day-to-day grind of chemotherapy was over and a sense of accomplishment that she was still standing. “I finally felt I could celebrate something,” she says. “I could celebrate I made it through this part.” A tradition with MD Anderson roots Nowadays it seems nearly every cancer facility has bells that patients can ring to mark the end of treatment. But it’s thought that the tradition began at MD Anderson in 1996. A rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Irve Le Moyne, was undergoing radiation therapy for head and neck cancer and told his doctor, Kian Ang, M.D., Ph.D., that he planned to follow a Navy tradition of ringing a bell to signify “when the job was done.” He brought a brass bell to his last treatment, rang it several times and left it as a donation. It was mounted on a wall plaque in the Main Building’s Radiation Treatment Center with the inscription: Ringing Out Ring this bell Three times well Its...

Coping with cancer: Where spirituality comes in

Spirituality can mean different things to different people. Prayer to a higher power, connecting with nature or creating a work of art can all be ways of expressing spirituality. A cancer diagnosis or the challenges of treatment can influence your spirituality by strengthening your beliefs or bringing them into question. We recently spoke with social work counselors Annabelle Bitter and Tiffany Meyer about the role spirituality can play for cancer patients and caregivers. Here’s what they had to say. Spirituality and religion are different While religion and spirituality may be similar for some people, they’re not the same thing. “Spirituality is a relationship you have with a higher power that gives you meaning or purpose,” Bitter says. Spirituality means something different for each of us, and we express it in our own ways. Religion, on the other hand, is usually more structured, with a set of beliefs and standards shared by a group of people. “You can be religious and not necessarily spiritual. You can be spiritual and religious, or you can be spiritual but not religious,” Bitter says. “What I love about spirituality is it varies from person to person, but it’s all about what gives you a sense of connection,” Meyer adds. When cancer puts faith into question Fear, doubt and anger are all normal emotions when facing a cancer diagnosis. These emotions can cause you to question your spiritual beliefs. Patients or caregivers may ask, “Why me?” This may be especially true if you feel you’ve been faithful or lived a good life based on your spiritual beliefs. These crises of faith are an important part...

9 questions about inflammatory breast cancer, answered

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) accounts for only about 2-4% of new breast cancer diagnoses each year. But because it’s so aggressive, it makes up a disproportionate number of breast cancer-related deaths annually, even though it’s rare. “IBC has been called both ’the silent killer’ and ‘the master metastasizer,’ because it’s often misdiagnosed and it spreads so quickly,” explains Wendy Woodward, M.D., Ph.D.  “That’s why speed is so critical in both the diagnosis and treatment of inflammatory breast cancer.” We spoke with Woodward to learn more. Here’s what she wants people to know about inflammatory breast cancer. What are the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer, and how do they differ from other types? Classic inflammatory breast cancer symptoms develop fairly quickly (3 months or less), and can include swollen breasts, red skin and nipple inversion. Unlike other types of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer doesn’t usually show up as a lump or appear in a screening mammogram, which is why it’s often misdiagnosed. Is there a genetic component to this disease? Are any screening tests available? Unfortunately, no. There’s no inheritable component of inflammatory breast cancer that’s useful for genetic testing today. And because its symptoms can come on so quickly — often between mammograms — scan-based screening is largely ineffective for this disease. Its widespread distribution throughout the breast tissue (often, without a lump you can feel) can also make mammograms appear negative, even when there are obvious changes to the skin. Are some people more likely to develop inflammatory breast cancer than others? Yes. IBC tends to occur most in two groups: post-menopausal women and young mothers. In...