Cardiothoracic surgeon: Compassion is MD Anderson’s secret ingredient

The way I practice medicine is heavily influenced by the fact that I’m a mother. Many of the same qualities that are useful in parenting my four children — such as flexibility and perseverance — also come in handy while treating my patients. But of all the traits that serve me well in both areas, compassion is probably the most important. Compassion is MD Anderson’s secret ingredient. It’s not just our expertise, but the way we interact with our patients and their families. Obviously, our goal is to leave people cancer-free. But we treat people the way we would want to be treated. And that makes all the difference. The MD Anderson difference Working at the No. 1 cancer hospital in the world is amazing. You can see that compassion and feel it in action the minute you walk through MD Anderson’s doors. There’s just something special about a place that’s focused exclusively on curing cancer. Here, our patients have some of the world’s most talented doctors treating them — people who genuinely care about them and their families. And these doctors aren’t simply compassionate. They’re also specialists in treating their patients’ specific type of cancer. That means patients get the right diagnosis, so that they get the right treatment for that cancer from the very beginning. And that’s important, because getting the wrong treatment can delay proper care, or even prevent them from receiving the right treatment further down the line. Through clinical trials, our patients also have access to therapies that are not otherwise available. Patient care at MD Anderson: a team effort I divide my time...

3 things I’ve learned from my wife’s brain cancer relapse

Prior to my wife’s glioblastoma diagnosis in 2013, I traveled a lot for my job, both inside and outside the U.S. That arrangement worked out pretty well, even after Susie’s first brain cancer diagnosis in 1999, because she had surgery and joined a clinical trial at MD Anderson that left her cancer-free for 14 years. But I think we underestimated how difficult things were going to be the second time around. We just assumed that because she’d done so well the first time, we might have a similar experience. Unfortunately, Susie had different and more severe side effects from treatment. Her body just wasn’t as strong as it had been when she was 34. It took us by surprise. Here are three things I’ve learned from that experience. Be specific when asking for help The most debilitating side effect Susie experienced was a pontine (brain stem) stroke in 2015. It was likely caused by a weakening of blood vessels from two full rounds of radiation therapy. After that, I could no longer travel for my job. Susie needed more dedicated care. The stroke left her unable to work or perform many basic functions. She had to relearn how to walk, bathe and feed herself, among other things. In hindsight, balancing Susie’s care with my job and two teenagers was pretty overwhelming. I probably should’ve asked for help. It took our youngest asking for help on Facebook for me to realize how eager friends and family were to jump in, and that I really needed the help. I just had to ask and be specific about what and where. Today,...

Pancreatic cancer survivor: 3 myths about MD Anderson

I live in Dallas, but when I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2017, I chose to come to MD Anderson for my treatment. My husband Jim and I knew it was doing groundbreaking research and offering clinical trials in all areas, and we wanted to be at the very best place with the most options. We also wanted a firm diagnosis. My physician strongly suspected I had pancreatic cancer, but only because she’d done bloodwork during my annual checkup — and it showed a few of my numbers were off-the-charts haywire. She ordered a CT scan and saw a mass near my pancreas. But I had zero symptoms, so we didn’t know for certain that it was pancreatic cancer until I came to MD Anderson. Once I started treatment there, I was surprised by some of the misconceptions I heard from friends, often repeatedly. So, here are three myths that I’d like to dispel about cancer treatment, based on my experience at MD Anderson. Myth 1: You have to navigate cancer on your own. A lot of patients have this idea that once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you have to do your own research to understand your disease and get the best care. But that’s simply not true. At MD Anderson, there are so many resources available to you. And I don’t just mean from the internet. I mean from patient volunteers willing to share their stories and doctors who are extremely open to communication. All you have to do is ask. MD Anderson even has support teams to help people who are from out of...

Breast cancer survivor: Watch for changes in your breasts

In late 2016, I was eating organic food, working out regularly and had never missed a mammogram. Yet, I still ended up with a breast cancer diagnosis at age 50. I felt a lump in my right breast one day and knew it wasn’t normal. So, I went to my primary care physician. She ordered a diagnostic mammogram, and a biopsy to confirm it. Then she referred me to a local oncologist. Originally, I’m from Chicago, but I’ve lived in eight different cities since then. So, while I’d probably heard MD Anderson’s name in passing, I was completely unaware that it was the nation’s top-ranked hospital for cancer care. That’s why I didn’t even think of it when I was diagnosed on Dec. 27, even though I live just down the street. Today, I am so glad that I landed there. Because I am fairly picky, and everyone on my team at MD Anderson was amazing. I don’t believe in flukes, so I attribute my guidance there to the hand of God. Quick self-referral process swayed me One of the things that astonished me most was how responsive everyone at MD Anderson was. I learned that I had breast cancer at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. I couldn’t eat or sleep that night, so I went online to do some research. Then, somebody in a cancer forum wrote, “You know, you live in Houston, so you might want to check out MD Anderson. It’s considered the best in the world.”  I went to the website and filled out MD Anderson’s online form in middle of night. And to my...

CAR NK therapy offers new treatment option for blood cancers

Natural killer cells – or NK cells – are part of our immune system. They patrol our bodies for abnormal cells like cancer and destroy them. But cancer cells can make themselves invisible, making it much more difficult for NK cells to find them and do their job. Through clinical research, MD Anderson is developing a new type of immunotherapy called CAR NK therapy. This type of treatment enhances the cancer-fighting power of NK cells. “We’re trying to build on the natural ability of NK cells by giving them the skills to recognize and destroy cancer cells that have made themselves invisible,” says Katy Rezvani, M.D., Ph.D., co-leader of MD Anderson’s adoptive cell therapy platform. Enhancing cancer-fighting ability of NK cells Through the MD Anderson Cord Blood Bank, Rezvani and her team gather NK cells from donated umbilical cord blood and transform these cells into an effective cancer therapy. “Our approach is to extract NK cells from the blood of an umbilical cord that’s been donated by parents after their baby's birth,” Rezvani says. A molecule called a chimeric antigen receptor – or a CAR – is then added to the NK cells. With this addition, the new CAR NK cells can now recognize a target on the surface of the previously “invisible” cancer cell and attack. Current research has focused on a specific target molecule called CD19, which is found on certain cancer cells. Through the first CAR NK clinical trial, Rezvani and her team are treating patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia. A ready-to-use blood cancer treatment option Because CAR NK therapy...