How I reinvented myself after an osteosarcoma diagnosis

After losing most of my right leg at age 14 in November 2010 due to osteosarcoma, it was really hard for me to give up gymnastics. It had been my whole life up until then, and I’d been good enough at it that I was on track for a college scholarship. But when the nagging knee pain I’d had for about a year turned out to be bone cancer instead of a sports injury, my parents and I came to MD Anderson. There, we met with Dr. Valerae Lewis, and started chemotherapy. However, when my tumor grew larger on chemotherapy, we made the decision to amputate my leg. Given the high odds of recurrence with limb salvage, I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. My cancer wasn’t responding to chemotherapy, and radiation wasn’t effective against osteosarcoma. I tried to go back to gymnastics after I got used to my prosthesis, but I couldn’t perform at nearly the same level, and my heart just wasn’t in it. I tried other sports, too, but nothing gave me that same drive. Then, I went on a ski trip to Utah with MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital in January 2012 and the second I strapped on a snowboard, I knew it was what I wanted to do. Now, I just think of cancer as something that happened to me once upon a time. And I keep my head up and keep moving forward. My unexpected title: Mom It took me about a year after my amputation to be in a prosthetic leg all day. I just didn’t have the same energy I’d...

What role does a pulmonologist play in cancer treatment?

You may know that a pulmonologist specializes in treating diseases like pneumonia and asthma, but these specialized doctors also play a key role in treatment for lung cancer and cancers that have spread to lungs, such as breast cancer, kidney cancer and ovarian cancer. At MD Anderson, our pulmonologists help confirm a cancer diagnosis and determine the disease’s stage as well as if it has spread — all of which are needed to determine the best treatment plan for our patients. To better understand the role that these specialists play in cancer care and what you can do to prepare for you appointment, we spoke with pulmonologist George Eapen, M.D. Here’s what he shared. How is cancer in the lungs diagnosed? Patients typically learn they may have cancer in a lung during an ER visit, or an appointment with their primary care physician for a persistent cough, shortness of breath or chest pain. The doctor will request scans, and if there’s an abnormality (sometimes called a nodule or a mass), you will see a pulmonologist for a confirmation of diagnosis through biopsy. What questions will be covered during an initial consultation with a pulmonologist? We’re looking for clues to help form a diagnosis. We want to know any details you can share about when your symptoms started and anything that makes your symptoms better or worse. Also, tell us if you’ve undergone sedation before and if you had any difficulties with that experience. We also need to know if you have a history of heart disease or if you’re on a blood thinner. These are all risk factors for...

Why a brain tumor survivor brought his guitar into the OR

When Robert Alvarez was diagnosed with a low-grade insular brain tumor in 2013, he decided to hope for the best and postpone treatment. “The doctors told me surgery could leave me paralyzed,” Robert recalls. He noticed increasing headaches and clumsiness, but the symptoms were still manageable. As an active 19-year-old athlete and musician, Robert felt the risks of surgery were worse than living with the brain tumor.   “I just hoped it wouldn’t grow and tried to be careful,” he says. After high school, Robert moved from San Antonio to Chicago to pursue a music career and start vocational school in audio engineering. Meanwhile, his mother began researching neurosurgeons and hospitals for the future. A love of music In Chicago, Robert started a metal band with a few friends. His brain tumor served as the inspiration for the band’s name: Death from Within. Robert had started playing the guitar at age 12, inspired by an eclectic mix of music, ranging from 90s hip-hop to heavy metal. “I picked it up fast,” Robert says. “I like to bump it – just turn the amp up and jam when everyone else leaves the house.” The road to MD Anderson   After a few years in Chicago, Robert began to notice new symptoms. “I would wake up at night feeling weird, and I’d run to look at myself in the bathroom mirror,” he says. “One night, I fell out of bed. My roommate heard me hit the wood floor and came to check on me.” Robert was having seizures – a common brain tumor symptom – in his sleep. Robert woke up...

Kidney cancer survivor: Don’t delay seeing a doctor

Prior to being diagnosed with kidney cancer, I’d never heard of MD Anderson. But the more I researched my disease, the more I kept seeing Dr. Nizar Tannir’s name. The type of kidney cancer I was diagnosed with — medullary renal cell carcinoma — is pretty rare, and most of the other treatment centers I contacted said they had no experience with it. They also told me to find a place offering clinical trials, which MD Anderson does. When I discovered that Dr. Tannir worked at MD Anderson, I reached out by email to schedule an appointment. Not only did he have experience treating my exact type of cancer, but at the time, MD Anderson was one of the only — if not the only — places that was actively conducting research on it. Fortunately, my kidney cancer treatment worked better than expected, so I never had to join a clinical trial. But it’s comforting to know that I could have, if I’d needed to. My kidney cancer symptoms I first learned I had cancer in April 2012. I’d been experiencing pain on the right side of my back and flank over about six months, and it was getting progressively worse. Eventually, it began radiating down into my groin. I also developed a cough that wouldn’t go away and started feeling a burning sensation in my lungs. I finally went to a local emergency room when I noticed a lot of blood in my urine. The doctors there performed CT scans and found a mass in my right kidney. They suspected it was cancer. Chest X-rays showed that it had...

My colorectal cancer treatment: How I’m coping

I was raised believing that everything happens for a reason, and that’s exactly how I’ve chosen to approach my treatment for colorectal cancer. I was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer in the November 2012 after I started experiencing pain in my stomach. At first, I thought I might’ve become lactose intolerant, but when the pain persisted, I went to the doctor.  A stool test revealed blood, so my doctor insisted I undergo a colonoscopy. Even though I was 67 at the time, I’d never done the procedure before because I wasn’t aware of the colorectal cancer screening guidelines. Sure enough, my colonoscopy confirmed I had cancer. Beginning my colorectal cancer treatment I immediately started chemotherapy near my East Texas home, and then at my doctor’s recommendation, I came to MD Anderson in June 2013 for a partial colectomy to remove part of my colon.  The surgery successfully removed all but a tiny spot of my cancer. I then underwent more chemotherapy to treat the remaining cancer. Thankfully, I was given the option of receiving chemotherapy under the care of Dr. Douglas Nelson at MD Anderson in The Woodlands, which cut the commute from my East Texas home by more than an hour.  I received the chemo combination FOLRIFI/Bevacizumab from July-October 2014 and then 5-FU/Bevacizumab, a type of maintenance chemo, from October 2014-April 2015. My scans showed that my cancerous spot was still there, but it was small enough that I got by with just observation for 4 months. But when the spot started growing after 4 months, Dr. Nelson said I had to resume treatment. Coping with setbacks...