16-year survivor: A breast cancer diagnosis helped me find my life’s purpose

I’ve been helping people get around at MD Anderson since 2002. First, I drove the ground shuttles that travel between our buildings at the Texas Medical Center Campus. Then, I became a dispatch team leader. And in 2011, I started driving the shuttle carts that connect our buildings along the skybridge. Over the years, I’ve probably heard hundreds of our patients’ cancer stories. I never thought I’d have one to tell myself. But I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in October 2003, less than 12 months after I started working here. And it was a scary walk, but I feel like I’ve finally found my purpose: giving hope to others. My breast cancer diagnosis I had a little lump in my left breast for years. But I’m one of those people who thinks, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And it never bothered me, so I just left it alone. Then I started feeling sharp pains in my chest. They weren’t very frequent, but they were striking. Sometimes they felt like labor contractions. One day, the pain was so severe that it brought me to tears. I went to my doctor, and he ordered a mammogram. It showed a suspicious growth in my left breast. He ordered a biopsy. The results showed I had invasive ductal carcinoma, a type of breast cancer. The doctor said it was stage IV. So, I went to MD Anderson’s Nellie B. Connally Breast Center. My breast cancer treatment At MD Anderson, I met with medical oncologist Dr. Abenaa Brewster, radiation oncologist Dr. Eric Strom and surgical oncologist Dr. Barry Feig....

Caregiver: Skull base tumor expertise saved my husband’s life

I’ve been an educator for 16 years and a high school librarian for eight. I teach kids how to do research, so I know how to find stuff online. And that’s exactly what I did after my husband, Mark, was diagnosed with a rare skull base tumor called chordoma of the clivus last summer. None of the doctors or specialists we saw here in Alabama could even tell us what it was, much less how to treat it. One thought it might be an infection. All of them called it “inoperable,” which meant they didn’t think it could be removed surgically. They suggested we go home and get Mark’s affairs in order, because whatever he had was probably going to kill him. At the time, our son was only 3. So, that prognosis was not OK with me. I started researching. And the one name that kept popping up was MD Anderson. I have one dear friend who works there and another who received treatment there. So, I’d already heard it was a fabulous place. It also has an entire team focused on skull base tumors, like my husband’s. Now, after seeing firsthand what MD Anderson did for Mark, I know my friends were right. When it comes to cancer, MD Anderson is a whole different ball game. No one can beat it. A better prognosis after a skull base tumor diagnosis After three weeks of being ping-ponged back and forth between local doctors who told us Mark was probably going to die, I was completely freaking out. Then we met with Dr. Shaan Raza, a neurosurgeon at MD Anderson....

Nobel Prize-winning researcher: The future of immunotherapy for cancer treatment

For a long time, immunotherapy was considered nonsense by many people in mainstream cancer medicine. It had been tried for years, starting with a German scientist named Paul Ehrlich in 1906. There’d been a lot of other attempts since then, particularly in the 1960s and 1980s, but none of them really worked. Unfortunately, there was a lot of hype around those efforts each time. So, when they didn’t pan out, the field as a whole got a bad reputation. And as I started looking into immunotherapy research in the early 1990s, people kept telling me, “Don’t do this.” But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of ipilimumab, the drug I developed, in 2011 and the discovery of other checkpoint inhibitors by other researchers have proven that immunotherapy is a legitimate cancer treatment option. I think the Nobel Prize was the final seal of approval that this is real, that it’s not just some snake oil. And I believe that immunotherapy is going to continue to grow. Humanizing my immunotherapy research Being the first person on the planet to know something important is really cool. But so is meeting the people your discovery has helped. I don’t know the exact number of people who’ve benefitted from ipilimumab, but I do know there are a lot of folks alive today who wouldn’t be otherwise. The first time I met a patient who’d taken ipilimumab was in 2006. I’d been involved in clinical trials for it by then for several years. One day, I was in my office, and an oncologist I worked with very closely called and said, “Hey. Can...

How I laughed in the face of cancer

When I was 16 and undergoing treatment for a type of brain cancer called medulloblastoma, one of the best pieces of advice I got was from a nurse at MD Anderson. Early on, LeighAnna Hutchinson told me: “Find your laugh.” It was hard sometimes, but I took her advice. I looked for every opportunity I could to laugh at what was going on. And laughing in the face of cancer was what helped me get through some hard and unpleasant experiences. Finding humor in hair loss One way I found my laugh was by wearing different color wigs. I lost my hair within a few months of starting chemotherapy, so my mother and grandmother bought me a ton of wigs. I had so many colors: red, pink, blue, blonde. You name it, I had it. There were a bunch of different hairstyles, too. Some were long, and some were cute little bobs. Obviously, the wigs were purchased for me to wear. But whenever my grandmother or mom noticed I was feeling sad, she would put on one of the sillier ones. It never failed to make me smile.  Inside jokes about bodily functions and bathroom humor Bodily functions also became kind of funny. Sometimes during chemotherapy, I’d pass gas unexpectedly, right in the middle of a conversation. I’d usually say something like, “And that’s what I think about that.” The whole room always had a good laugh. I also wore a button on my shirt that read, “I pooped today,” because cancer patients get asked a lot if they’re having regular bowel movements or are constipated due to pain...

Why I chose MD Anderson for my uterine cancer treatment

My whole career in financial services has been about creating positive experiences for other people. But I never knew how different one hospital could be from another until I came to MD Anderson for uterine cancer treatment in December 2017. At MD Anderson, I learned how important every single person is to making a hospital great: from the parking lot attendant who greets you with a smile to the custodian who collects your trash to the server who brings you your food. Everyone at MD Anderson — no matter who it is — wants to make a difference. And that’s what makes it special. A meaningful personal connection shaped my uterine cancer treatment At first, I was quite resistant to the idea of seeking a second opinion at MD Anderson. My son was only 14 at the time, and I had a very busy career. I wanted to stay close to Dallas, so I could be near my family. And MD Anderson is five hours away. But when I first made eye contact with gynecologic oncologist Dr. Michaela Onstad, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. I already felt a connection to her because I’d learned through research that we both grew up in the same part of northern California. Then, during my first office visit, she noticed I looked scared. And instead of launching right into my diagnosis and treatment plan, she took the time to sit down next to me and say, “Let’s talk about what’s going on with you and why you’re here.” Her approach was completely different from the first oncologist I’d...