Cancer caregiver finds support, acceptance in online support group

Shelly Ward is a trailblazer. As one of only a few female airplane pilots with the U.S. Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration, she conducts aerial surveillance that helps dismantle drug trafficking rings and brings criminals to justice. “My job is never dull,” she says. “I’ve got to be on my game at all times. I can’t afford to become rattled.” But when Shelly’s husband, Kerrick, received a rare pancreatic cancer diagnosis last month after overcoming non-Hodgkin lymphoma four years ago, she began to feel overwhelmed. “We law enforcement types keep a stiff upper lip. We’re not used to asking for help,” she says, “but I knew I needed to talk with someone.” Contrary to her nature, Shelly signed up for a virtual support group for caregivers of cancer patients. Facilitated by MD Anderson’s social work counselors, the group began meeting online during the coronavirus pandemic, as MD Anderson took steps to protect its patients, caregivers and workforce members from COVID-19. “The pandemic presented an opportunity to transition our support groups from an in-person to a virtual format,” says Teresa Van Oort, clinical program manager for Social Work. “MD Anderson’s is leading the way by offering one of the broadest support group selections in the country right now.” Members log onto their computers twice a week to join virtual sessions led by a social work counselor. Together, they discuss the emotions involved in caring for someone with cancer, including fear, sadness, financial stress, physical exhaustion and guilt. “All the members in the group are on the same journey – they understand,” says Van Oort. Initial cancer diagnosis: Burkitt lymphoma Shelly,...

Students, MD Anderson staff support music teacher through cancer treatment during COVID-19 pandemic

“You are not alone.” These are just a few of the kind words that Donya’ Easterly came home to find posted on her front door recently. Donya’, a career music instructor and a colorectal cancer patient, has felt the growing anxieties about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) shared by many cancer patients. In addition to worrying about contracting the coronavirus, patients are adjusting to another change: having to go to appointments alone as hospitals like MD Anderson restrict visitors to protect patients from COVID-19. Facing cancer treatment alone – with her students “None of us expected to be sitting in these chemotherapy chairs or going through these scans alone,” says Donya’, who lives alone and now drives herself to her appointments. “It might look like we are going through this alone, but we’re actually all going through this together.” The dozens of handwritten notes that her former students surprised her with on her door reaffirmed this for Donya’, who taught music for over 30 years before her cancer treatment began to significantly disrupt her teaching last year. While Donya’ has had to close her music studio, her past students and their families have become lifelong friends and a strong support system for her. They’ve driven her to chemotherapy over the years and are now bringing her groceries during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The bond I have with these students is like no other, and their support lifts me up,” she says. “I know that no matter where I am or what I am going through, my students of the past 30 years will always be there for me because of the...

Leukemia survivor after COVID-19 recovery: ‘There’s always something to fight for’

Mary Hernandez didn’t realize how sick she was when she came to the MD Anderson Emergency Center on March 30. The 41-year-old was still reeling from the chronic lymphocytic leukemia diagnosis she’d received just a month earlier from Jan Burger, M.D., Ph.D. Then, she discovered she had COVID-19-related pneumonia, a respiratory infection caused by the novel coronavirus. “I don’t think I really took it all in,” she says. “I just remember being scared. I was treating the symptoms at home. But I would’ve come in much sooner if I’d known.” Now, after almost 30 days in the hospital — 17 of them spent on a ventilator — Mary is being discharged home. She has recovered and is eager to reconnect with her family. “It was a very long journey, and I still have a ways to go,” she says. “But I am making excellent strides. I feel ready. And I’m excited to see my kids.” COVID-19 treatment was a team effort For Robert Wegner, M.D., an anesthesiologist who specializes in critical care medicine, the fact that Mary is leaving MD Anderson at all is a small miracle. “She was already in respiratory failure and septic shock," says Wegner. "But we gave her the maximum dose of anti-inflammatory agents and did everything short of putting her on a heart and lung machine to save her life.” Wegner, John Crommet, M.D., and Raja Reddi, M.D., also put Mary on a ventilator at the highest possible setting. They weaned her off as her lungs slowly recovered. “We are all so pleased with Mary’s progress,” Wegner says. “We just took it one system...

After overcoming coronavirus (COVID-19), surgeon donates plasma

While George Chang, M.D., battled the cough, high fever and severe body aches caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19), his immune system was producing antibodies — “warrior” proteins that fight infections. “I had a rough go of it, but in the end, my body produced the antibodies to beat the coronavirus,” says Chang, a colorectal cancer surgeon at MD Anderson. Most antibodies are found in plasma — the yellow, liquid part of the blood. Chang is donating his plasma to MD Anderson Blood Bank. His plasma donation may be used by MD Anderson to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients as part of a national initiative led by the Mayo Clinic. This effort will help doctors determine if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can help those currently facing the disease. People who’ve already had COVID-19 may have antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus — the virus that causes COVD-19 disease — in their plasma. Researchers think these antibodies could help stimulate a stronger immune response in patients with COVID-19. If they do, convalescent plasma may serve as a bridge until COVID-19 treatments or a vaccine become available. “There’s no effective treatment for COVID-19, so patients who are the sickest are willing to try this,” Chang explains. “If this works, it can save lives.” Convalescent plasma: an old therapy for a new coronavirus The idea of using one person’s antibodies to help another person fight a virus is not new. “Physicians have used plasma to treat other viral infections including the Ebola virus,” says Elizabeth Shpall, M.D., who is leading MD Anderson’s participation in the national convalescent plasma effort with Kimberly Klein, M.D.,...

Despite COVID-19 pandemic, MD Anderson Cancer Network enables patient to continue clinical trial

Like many people, Suzanne Damann has had to curtail her activities due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have forced the retired school secretary to avoid family gatherings and attend virtual church services. Local outings are limited to the grocery store, where she waits in the car with her dachshund, Nikki, while her husband shops. But Suzanne is still in active treatment for stage IV colorectal cancer at MD Anderson. And, until now, traveling to Houston for treatment has been non-negotiable for the Florida resident. “The timing of this whole thing has been bad for everyone,” she says. “But MD Anderson is really special: it’s the Taj Mahal of cancer care. And it’s been keeping my cancer at bay. So, we’ve been driving there every two weeks.” When travel restrictions made it harder for Suzanne to travel to Houston to continue to receive treatment on a clinical trial, she was relieved to learn about Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. MD Anderson Cancer Network provides treatment options close to home Located in Jacksonville, Florida, Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center is only a 2-hour drive from Suzanne’s home in Ocala. And, because it’s an MD Anderson Cancer Network® partner facility, she can expect to get the same top-notch care there that she’d normally receive at our Texas Medical Center location. “Once this pandemic is over, I’ll still go back to Texas,” she says. “My doctors there are the best and the main hospital is my comfort zone. But it’s good to have this option right now. It’s nice to be close to home.” Continued clinical trial...