Lung cancer survivor: Why I’m grateful for proton therapy

Before my lung cancer diagnosis in 2007, I didn’t know anything about proton therapy. But then I came to MD Anderson for a second opinion after surgery, and scans done there revealed an enlarged lymph node in my chest that nobody else had noticed. Living in Houston, I was well aware of MD Anderson’s reputation. So when Dr. Garrett Walsh, Dr. David Grosshans and Dr. Ritsuko Komaki (now retired) said they thought I’d be a good candidate for proton therapy, I said OK. I trusted them completely. One reason my doctors recommended proton therapy was because the cancerous lymph node was so close to my heart, and this would limit its exposure to radiation. I had about seven weeks of proton therapy daily under their supervision, along with a reduced dose of weekly chemotherapy to make it more effective. And I’ve been cancer-free ever since. What I’ve learned about proton therapy Since then, I’ve learned that proton therapy isn’t used to treat all types of cancer. It turns out I was actually one of the first lung cancer patients at MD Anderson to receive proton therapy back in 2007. But it’s being used to treat more and more types of cancer today. The best thing about proton therapy is that it treats the cancer while minimizing radiation exposure to the rest of your body. So, normal, healthy tissues aren’t as affected, and there are typically fewer side effects than with traditional radiation therapy. My proton therapy side effects My diseased lymph node was also very close to my esophagus, so I did have some discomfort and trouble swallowing during...

What to know about mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that’s most commonly found in the lining of the lungs or abdomen, but it can also start in the lining of the heart or testicles in rare cases. Mesothelioma is most common in men ages 45 to 85. Typically, it occurs in those who’ve been exposed to asbestos, a fibrous mineral used in construction and manufacturing until it was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989. But not everyone who’s been exposed to asbestos will get mesothelioma. In rare cases, mesothelioma can be passed down in families through the BAP1 gene, or BRCA1-associated protein 1. Not everyone who’s been exposed to asbestos will get mesothelioma, but if you’ve been exposed, you could be at risk. To learn about mesothelioma symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options, we spoke with Anne Tsao, M.D. Here’s what she shared. What are common mesothelioma symptoms? Mesothelioma symptoms often don’t appear until it’s advanced. It may be 20-30 years or more after you’ve been exposed to asbestos. When it begins in the lungs, it’s called pleural mesothelioma. Shortness of breath is one of the first symptoms, but fluid in your lungs may also cause constant coughing or wheezing. As the tumor grows, it may press against other parts of your body, causing chest pain. Peritoneal mesothelioma begins in the lining of the abdomen; its first sign is usually abdominal bloating. You should tell your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. How is mesothelioma diagnosed? If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, your doctor will most likely perform a chest X-ray. This would show any fluid in your lungs. If...

How Enhanced Recovery Program is changing cancer patients’ surgery recovery

Since becoming a doctor, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that the more we can lower patients’ anxiety levels, the better off they are. Educating patients about what to expect improves both how they do during cancer treatment and how they feel about it. It’s like giving people a passport to their own healing. That’s why I’m so pleased to be involved in MD Anderson initiatives that ensure our patients receive the best possible care. My role lets me keep enjoying the remarkable relationships I’ve developed by treating individuals, while also putting entire systems in place that help all of our patients. Enhanced Recovery Program gets cancer patients feeling better faster As a physician, my goal is to do the right thing for the right patient at the right time, every time. And every other doctor at MD Anderson shares this goal. It starts with putting extremely talented people together with really good safety and quality practices. Many of these practices are included in our Enhanced Recovery Program (ERP), a set of 21 guidelines initially used before, during and after surgical procedures. Now these same practices have crossed over to medicine and are being used to aid in the recovery of non-surgical patients, as well. But Enhanced Recovery is more of a philosophy of care than a narrow program. It includes strategies such as minimizing the use of narcotics, aggressive physical therapy, and allowing patients to drink clear fluids up to two hours before a procedure. The idea is to get people feeling better faster, so they can get back to their lives that much sooner....

How I dealt with permanent hair loss and other side effects

When I first lost my hair due to breast cancer treatment, I often heard people say, “Don’t worry. It’s only hair.” The implication was that it would grow back — eventually. But after a while, I began to notice that it was always the people with a full head of hair who said it. And I am one of the very small percentage of women whose hair didn’t grow back after chemotherapy. So, I am still bald to this day. It doesn’t feel like “just hair” when you’re the only one who doesn’t have any — especially when you’re a woman, and you realize that yours is probably never going to grow back. But I’m OK with being bald now, three years after my breast cancer diagnosis. Because I am cancer-free, too, and that matters far more to me than having hair. Most unexpected treatment side effect: permanent hair loss At first, I couldn’t believe I had to give up both my right breast and my hair to be free of cancer. Because here I was, thinking at least I was going to get my hair back, and it turns out the regrowth I’d experienced after treatment was only due to the steroids I’d been taking. It was totally temporary. I sat in my dermatologist’s office and cried when she told me. It turns out I’d developed alopecia areata, a condition that makes hair fall out in patches. It can be caused by chemotherapy, but it’s usually reversible. I’ve tried a few things since then to get my hair to grow back, but nothing’s really worked. So, I’ve accepted...

How I found beauty during breast cancer treatment

My doctor didn’t notice anything unusual during my well-woman exam in February 2018. When I felt a lump in my breast two months later, I wasn’t overly concerned. I was only 38 years old. My husband said I should get checked again, but I didn’t think it would turn out to be breast cancer. When I went to see my gynecologist a couple months later, my husband insisted that she re-examine me. My doctor ordered an ultrasound, a biopsy and a mammogram. They showed I had breast cancer. The weeks after my diagnosis were a blur of appointments and tests. The worst part was the uncertainty. I felt weak and completely vulnerable. My breast cancer treatment at MD Anderson League City I've lived in Houston for 15 years. Even before coming to MD Anderson, I knew about its reputation as the best cancer hospital in the U.S. So, there was no question about where I’d go for breast cancer treatment. I met with Dr. Richard Ehlers at MD Anderson League City a few days after receiving my breast cancer diagnosis. From the beginning, Dr. Ehlers was encouraging and positive. He always took the time to fully explain the pros and cons of my options. He also listened to my concerns. I liked that I didn't have to deal with Houston traffic when I drove to MD Anderson League City. It was also easier to navigate and less crowded, and there’s free parking. In July 2018, I started chemotherapy. Because the breast cancer was hormone receptor-positive, I had 12 weekly rounds of Taxol and four rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan....