Glioblastoma caregiver: MD Anderson has helped my wife survive brain cancer twice

It’s unlikely you’re ever going to meet anyone quite like my wife. For one thing, Susie is a two-time brain cancer survivor. That alone makes her amazing. But she’s also still alive — more than 20 years after her initial diagnosis. That makes her unique. We were so worried when Susie’s tumor was first discovered. Our kids were both really little back then: just 3 years and 2 months old. Susie feared, if she died, they wouldn’t know or remember her. Now, our youngest is 21 and studying biochemistry in college. Our eldest recently earned a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and is working in a neuroscience lab in Boston. Susie and I have traveled around the world and back. It’s all been possible because of the folks at MD Anderson. A brain cancer diagnosis Susie was pregnant with our second child when she started having problems with memory, word association, poor appetite and headaches. Doctors attributed those symptoms to a challenging pregnancy. But the symptoms got even worse after she gave birth. When the headaches became unmanageable, I took Susie to a local emergency room in Austin. The doctor there thought she had a bad sinus infection. I knew her symptoms were something more serious, so I pushed for a CT scan. Finally, the doctor agreed. The scan showed a tumor the size of an orange in the left temporal lobe of Susie’s brain. After having an MRI, Susie met with the hospital’s neurosurgeon. He told us Susie’s brain tumor was the largest he had ever seen, and he was amazed she was still able to walk and...

Breast cancer survivor: Why I volunteer at MD Anderson

I’d always heard that people should wait a year before volunteering at MD Anderson, so they could make sure they were “over it” after finishing their cancer treatments. But even when treatment is over, it’s not completely over — at least, not in your head. So, I don’t know who is ever “over it,” because I don’t think you ever really “get over” having cancer. I just knew when I was capable of being helpful again after a breast cancer diagnosis. So, I started volunteering in March 2018, about four months after I returned to work. And I’ve done a lot of volunteer service gigs in my life. But I never enjoyed any of them as much as I do this one. What spurred me to give back after my breast cancer treatment I received a lot of support from people at MD Anderson, particularly when I first learned I had stage II breast cancer. I had a really bad week between the day of my Dec. 27, 2016, diagnosis and my first treatment on Jan. 2, 2017. But it wasn’t just my care team at MD Anderson who lifted my spirits and gave me hope. I also met regularly with volunteers at Mays Clinic, who shared their stories with me as fellow survivors. And I remember thinking, “As soon as I am able and finished, I’m going to pay this forward.” ‘Put me where I’ll be the most useful’ When I signed up to volunteer, I told the volunteer supervisor to put me wherever I could be the most useful. I know it can be very difficult to...

How good communication helps me deliver better care to my patients

People never want to be just a number, a chart or a diagnosis. They want their doctors to know them — to see them as real people and not just as patients. That’s why the first thing I do when I meet a new patient is listen. I want to hear people’s stories, so I can find out what they’ve been through that has gotten them to this point. Whether it’s an abnormal lab result, a suspicion of cancer, or a late-stage diagnosis that requires urgent treatment, my priority is opening up a line of communication. That way, not only can I figure out what’s going on; I can also start building trust by answering any questions patients might have and explaining the steps necessary to move forward. Listening well is a critical part of caring for cancer patients Doctors already have access to a fair amount of records they can review before seeing a new patient. But in my experience, it’s always better to get the story straight from the source. So, the first time I meet a patient, I always ask, “What brings you in to see me today?” Our cancer patients are fighting for their lives, and they need to know that I understand this. So, I listen closely to what they have to say, and repeat any lab tests or scans necessary to confirm their cancer diagnoses before proceeding. That last part is especially important, because the order of your treatments — and the type of treatment you get first — really matter. Each cancer treatment you select can affect your options further down the...

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...