Siblings help each other through sarcoma treatment during COVID-19 pandemic

When Ewing’s sarcoma survivor Erica Nowell learned that her older brother, Chris Plummer, had cancer earlier this year, she was shocked. But when she found out he’d been diagnosed with myxoid liposarcoma — a subtype of sarcoma — she was stunned.

“As a nurse practitioner at MD Anderson West Houston, I went through the motions of being empathetic and guiding him through next steps,” says Erica. “But as a sister, it took me several days to grasp the fact that my only sibling was about to embark on the same journey I was on. I had to cry about it a little bit before I could get down to business.”

Chris was pretty shaken up by his sarcoma diagnosis, too. “To say it came as a shock would be a massive understatement,” he says. “It’s been absolutely surreal.”

No question about where to be treated

The first thing Erica did was help Chris get an appointment with the specialists at MD Anderson’s Sarcoma Center.

“In my mind, there was never a question about where my brother would be treated,” she says. “MD Anderson saved my life as a teenager, and it’s helping me face a relapse now. So, it was reassuring to know he’d be in the same good hands.”

Chris ended up being assigned to the same doctors who are treating his sister: sarcoma specialist Robert Benjamin, M.D. (now mostly retired), radiation oncologist Ashleigh Guadagnolo M.D., and sarcoma surgeon Christina Roland, M.D.

“Knowing my care team is the same one that’s been treating her dramatically eased my fears,” Chris says.

Unusual dual sarcoma diagnoses call for genetic testing

It is extremely rare for siblings to be diagnosed with the same type of cancer, especially when there’s no family history to make it more likely. Only distant relatives of Chris and Erica had ever developed cancer, and those were different kinds that had occurred at advanced ages.

Still, both siblings got genetic testing for hereditary cancer syndromes at MD Anderson shortly after Chris’ diagnosis. The results came back negative for all 84 known mutations.

“That was a real relief to Erica, who wanted to make doubly sure for her three daughters,” says Chris.

Back-to-back treatments allow for carpooling and comfort

Erica and Chris are both receiving radiation therapy now as a part of their sarcoma treatment. So, they’ve been scheduling their sessions back-to-back at MD Anderson, which allows them to carpool together and keep each other company in the waiting rooms. Guadagnolo also agreed to see the siblings together during their weekly on-treatment visits, instead of requiring them to make two separate appointments.

“The faculty and staff at MD Anderson have been extremely accommodating,” Chris says.

The siblings have especially appreciated this during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, since they are unable to have visitors, as MD Anderson works to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on our campuses.

“It’s been a real blessing that we can be there for each other,” says Erica.

‘It’s my turn to be there for him’

Erica appreciates that she can use her experiences as both a sarcoma survivor and a nurse practitioner to help her older brother.

“I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone,” she says. “But in today’s world, you always have to look for the silver lining. The best part of this whole experience is that we get to conquer this beast together, and sarcoma is my area of expertise. My big brother is my hero, and as much as he has been there for me, now it’s my turn to be there for him.”

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