The doctor behind our Healthy Heart Program

Susan Gilchrist, M.D., loves to take on a challenge and to build things. Her latest passion is building a program that helps cancer patients return to, or even exceed, their levels of heart health prior to diagnosis. A new twist on her efforts is offering to play tennis with patients. It’s a game Gilchrist knows very well. The Huntsville, Alabama, native started playing tennis at age 9. “My dad was taking tennis lessons and invited me to join him,” Gilchrist says. “I quickly fell in love with the sport and started playing every day when my coach said that’s what my idol, Billie Jean King, did.” As a teen, she received scholarship offers from major universities around the country. She accepted the one from The University of Texas at Austin (UT). Road to a national championship During college, Gilchrist was a four-time All-American in singles and doubles and a three-time Southwest Conference Player of the Year. She led the team that won four straight conference titles and, in 1993, the national championship. Gilchrist had set the bar even higher for herself. She wanted to be the best tennis player in the world. But in her last collegiate tournament, she tore her rotator cuff. While she was able to play professional tennis briefly, the injury limited the next stage of her career. “I got to play in the U.S. Open and the French Open and compete against some of the world’s greatest players, including Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver, but the injury wasn’t going to allow me to reach my goal, so I decided it was time to move on,”...

Immunotherapy clinical trial gives four-time skin cancer survivor another chance

As a child growing up in the 1950s, Dean Potter spent a great deal of time outdoors working on his family’s Rhode Island farm, playing at the beach and sailing on the bay. But he didn’t use sunscreen, because the product was still in its infancy back then. “In those days, you put baby oil on to get the first good burn of the season, and then tanned the rest of the summer,” Dean says. “We didn’t know any better.” So, when Dean was diagnosed with skin cancer 50 years later, it didn’t really come as a surprise. During a routine exam in 2009, his internist noticed a lesion on his chest that wasn’t healing. She told him to get it checked out. It turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma. “I wasn’t shocked,” Dean says. Squamous cell carcinoma returns A dermatologist removed Dean’s lesion twice. And when a new lesion reappeared right above the original location just a year later, the dermatologist removed that, too. Dean remained cancer-free for the next four years. Then he started experiencing stiffness in his right shoulder. “I played a lot of tennis at the time, so I assumed it was related to that,” Dean says. An X-ray ruled out a torn rotator cuff, so Dean’s orthopedist prescribed physical therapy. The exercises seemed to help, and his range of motion improved. But during Dean’s last session, the physical therapist noticed a lump in his right armpit and urged him to get it checked out. “I’d been aware of it for several months, but it was just like the harmless fatty lump I had...

Cancer pain management brings patients relief

For 16 years, Rose Trapolino had a hard time walking because of the pain and tingling in her feet. The breast cancer survivor suffered from peripheral neuropathy – pain caused by nerve damage – that resulted from chemotherapy. Trapolino tried medications and other treatments to reduce the pain in her feet, but nothing worked. She had plenty of company. During the first month of chemotherapy, this kind of pain occurs 68% of the time. Traditionally these patients have been treated with opioids or narcotics, along with medications that weren’t developed for cancer pain but that help with its management, such as anti-seizure medications and antidepressants. But these medications don’t always relieve the pain, says Salahadin Abdi, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Pain Medicine. They also can have side effects and be addictive. Innovative cancer pain therapy brings positive results About 18 months ago, Abdi began treating neuropathy patients using scrambler therapy, which involves placing electrodes around the areas of numbness and pain. A “scrambler” machine connected to the electrodes sends normal impulses to the brain from the affected area so the brain perceives them as normal sensations instead of pain. Patients participate in 45 minute sessions for five to 10 days. “Our neuropathy patients’ preliminary experiences have been promising,” Abdi says. “Not only did they report less pain, they also regained sensation. And most importantly, their quality of life improved.” Trapolino started with the scrambler therapy machine and saw a difference after the second session. After the third session, the pain was gone, and she started feeling her feet again. “I was in constant pain. The neuropathy affected everything,” Trapolino...

Metastatic melanoma survivor: ‘Coming back to MD Anderson is a great feeling’

In May 2016, Victor Barreiro learned his melanoma, originally treated in his hometown of Mexico City in 2014, had returned and spread throughout his body. There were growths in his lungs, liver, spleen and brain – a total of 15 separate spots where cancer had spread, or metastasized. Today, after metastatic melanoma treatment at MD Anderson, most of those growths are gone. The few that remain are just a fraction of their original sizes and aren’t growing. Choosing MD Anderson for brain tumor surgery and metastatic melanoma treatment When Victor found out his melanoma had spread, his doctors in Mexico offered treatment, but they recommended he go to a cutting-edge research hospital. He first met with a neurosurgeon in Baltimore, who said removing that growth was a relatively straightforward procedure, but treating the disease throughout his body was the real challenge. So Victor decided to start interviewing oncologists. Two days later, Victor met with Hussein Tawbi, M.D., Ph.D., at MD Anderson. “When I met him, everything was so clear to me,” says Victor. “Those moments when you’re diagnosed and you have to decide where to get your treatment are very stressful. Once you find the best place for your treatment, then you rest. It was a relief to find Dr. Tawbi – not only his warmth, his kindness, but also his amazing knowledge and his groundbreaking research.” Since Victor’s brain metastasis presented the most immediate health risk, he underwent a craniotomy to remove the growth just one week after his first appointment at MD Anderson. Performed by Jeffrey Weinberg, M.D., the procedure addressed symptoms like confusion, seizures and trouble...

The future of cancer diagnosis and treatment: Liquid biopsies can reveal cancer and more

Some of cancer’s secrets are hiding in patients’ blood. Uncovering them involves only a simple blood draw. MD Anderson is taking innovative steps to maximize the potential of so-called liquid biopsies for the benefit of our patients. “Although liquid biopsies for broad clinical use are still in their infancy, they have the potential to revolutionize cancer care,” says Stan Hamilton, M.D., division head, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. “MD Anderson is pushing this field forward in many ways. It’s an incredibly exciting time.” Blood vs. tissue biopsies Biopsies are critical to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. In the past, the only option was collecting tissue from the tumor for examination. Today, physicians can learn important information about certain cancers from a tube of blood. And for patients, a quick needle stick is preferable to a more invasive procedure that can get complicated depending on the tumor’s size and location. So why do tissue biopsies anymore? “Blood can only tell us so much right now, so tissue biopsies remain the best and sometimes only option to provide the answers we need,” Hamilton says. “But I’m confident that we’ll be able to use liquid biopsies more as discoveries continue.” Unlocking answers Because cancer cells can release genetic material into the bloodstream, blood can help us learn earlier if there’s cancer in the body, before it causes symptoms or grows enough to be seen through imaging. This is currently most helpful to monitor if cancer has returned after treatment. Blood also can reveal genetic information about the cancer that’s present. Liquid biopsies scan for particular genetic alterations, aiding in prognosis and suggesting...