News and articles


 

There are many publications and sites that write about cancer. We want you to know we don’t produce the news items you can read in this section, they belong to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. This section only intents to inform you about what is out there.

However, we are working on the first edition of the Pink Ribbon Magazine as well as in the production of featured articles that will be published here.

 

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Lung cancer survivor: Why I’m grateful for proton therapy

Before my lung cancer diagnosis in 2007, I didn’t know anything about proton therapy. But then I came to MD Anderson for a second opinion after surgery, and scans done there revealed an enlarged lymph node in my chest that nobody else had noticed.

Living in Houston, I was well aware of MD Anderson’s reputation. So when Dr. Garrett Walsh, Dr. David Grosshans and Dr. Ritsuko Komaki (now retired) said they thought I’d be a good candidate for proton therapy, I said OK. I trusted them completely.

One reason my doctors recommended proton therapy was because the cancerous lymph node was so close to my heart, and this would limit its exposure to radiation. I had about seven weeks of proton therapy daily under their supervision, along with a reduced dose of weekly chemotherapy to make it more effective. And I’ve been cancer-free ever since.

What I’ve learned about proton therapy

Since then, I’ve learned that proton therapy isn’t used to treat all types of cancer. It turns out I was actually one of the first lung cancer patients at MD Anderson to receive proton therapy back in 2007. But it’s being used to treat more and more types of cancer today.

The best thing about proton therapy is that it treats the cancer while minimizing radiation exposure to the rest of your body. So, normal, healthy tissues aren’t as affected, and there are typically fewer side effects than with traditional radiation therapy.

My proton therapy side effects

My diseased lymph node was also very close to my esophagus, so I did have some discomfort and trouble swallowing during treatment. But that didn’t keep me from eating well or doing anything else I wanted to.

Fortunately, those side effects completely went away after I finished proton therapy. I also had some very slight irritation on the skin of my chest and back, but it was minimal, and never anything that required treatment.

Why I keep returning to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center

Today, I return to MD Anderson every two years for follow-up scans and checkups. But I am such a fan of proton therapy that I come back regularly to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center to talk with other patients, caregivers and medical professionals.

I attend some of the center’s “Beam News” information sessions to share my experiences with proton therapy treatment with current patients and their families, and to explain its benefits and encourage others to ask their doctors if it’s an option for them. Because I’m healthier now than I was before I had lung cancer — and that’s after having had part of my right lung removed. I’ve run 20 half-marathons since 2007, and two full marathons since 2017.

Why I continue sharing my lung cancer story

I love hearing that my story gives hope to other cancer patients and their families.

Just the other day, I talked to a woman through myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one cancer support community. I started volunteering through that in early 2016, so I could be the person who’d already “been there” for other patients that I wish I’d had to talk to early on.

The woman and I discovered we actually had similar stories. At the end of our conversation, she told me she was so happy I’d called, because she felt much more confident in moving forward in her own battle. That was really gratifying.

When I was first approached about sharing my story, I was hesitant. I didn’t know how it would be received. It’s very odd to be a lifelong non-smoker who developed lung cancer, so I thought people wouldn’t be able to relate. I’m glad I took the chance anyway. My story is always so well-received by those who need to hear it.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

What to know about mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that’s most commonly found in the lining of the lungs or abdomen, but it can also start in the lining of the heart or testicles in rare cases.

Mesothelioma is most common in men ages 45 to 85. Typically, it occurs in those who’ve been exposed to asbestos, a fibrous mineral used in construction and manufacturing until it was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989. But not everyone who’s been exposed to asbestos will get mesothelioma.

In rare cases, mesothelioma can be passed down in families through the BAP1 gene, or BRCA1-associated protein 1.

Not everyone who’s been exposed to asbestos will get mesothelioma, but if you’ve been exposed, you could be at risk. To learn about mesothelioma symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options, we spoke with Anne Tsao, M.D. Here’s what she shared.

What are common mesothelioma symptoms?

Mesothelioma symptoms often don’t appear until it’s advanced. It may be 20-30 years or more after you’ve been exposed to asbestos.

When it begins in the lungs, it’s called pleural mesothelioma. Shortness of breath is one of the first symptoms, but fluid in your lungs may also cause constant coughing or wheezing. As the tumor grows, it may press against other parts of your body, causing chest pain.

Peritoneal mesothelioma begins in the lining of the abdomen; its first sign is usually abdominal bloating.

You should tell your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

How is mesothelioma diagnosed?

If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, your doctor will most likely perform a chest X-ray. This would show any fluid in your lungs.

If the X-ray shows fluid in your lungs, your doctor may perform a procedure called a thoracentesis. During this procedure, your doctor will insert a needle into the space between the lungs and chest wall to remove fluid. Once the fluid is drained, it will be examined for cancer cells.

Unfortunately, cancer cells only show up 30% of the time, so your doctor may have to do more than one thoracentesis to find cancer cells.  

How is mesothelioma typically treated?

The type of treatment your doctor recommends depends on the stage and location of the tumor, as well as your age and overall health.

There are two different types of surgery your doctor may recommend:

  • Extrapleural pneumonectomy removes all organs where mesothelioma has spread. This may include the lung, lymph nodes, diaphragm or lining of the heart. The diaphragm and heart lining are then rebuilt with a sheet of artificial material. 
  • Pleurectomy/decortication involves peeling the tumor away from the lung, diaphragm and chest wall.

Radiation therapy after surgery can reduce the chances of cancer coming back. In some cases, it may also help relieve pain or discomfort. Your doctor may recommend a technique called intensity modulated radiation therapy, or IMRT. It focuses multiple radiation beams of different intensities directly on the tumor using the highest possible dose. IMRT may lead to better results and fewer side effects than other types of radiotherapy.

Chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy may also be used to slow tumor growth and prevent organ damage.

Which treatment options are best for which patients?

Your doctor may recommend extrapleural pneumonectomy if the mesothelioma is diagnosed early, before it has spread or caused serious damage to your organs. Because this complex surgery involves removing a lung, it’s only an option if you’re in good physical shape.

Pleurectomy/decortication may be a surgical option if you’re not eligible for an extrapleural pneumonectomy. Since the tumor usually can’t be removed entirely, there’s a risk of recurrence.  But this procedure relieves pain and shortness of breath, so your quality of life may improve.

Unfortunately, many mesothelioma patients aren’t diagnosed until the disease is more advanced. In these cases, surgery is not an option. When this happens, our goal is to give you more time with your family, improve your quality of life and relieve any cancer pain you have.

Anything else you want mesothelioma patients to know about treatment?

No matter when you’re diagnosed or what type of treatment your doctor recommends, it’s important to be as physically active as possible and maintain a balanced diet. This can help your body stay healthy enough for treatment and its side effects. If you’re an MD Anderson patient, ask your care team for a referral to one of our dietitians and the Integrative Medicine Center.

It’s also important to keep in mind that we have new ways to treat mesothelioma that weren’t options even two or three years ago, thanks to research and clinical trials.

Finally, there’s always hope. As long as you’re healthy enough to undergo treatment, there are options for you. If you have mesothelioma, you can have a good quality of life.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

How Enhanced Recovery Program is changing cancer patients’ surgery recovery

Since becoming a doctor, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that the more we can lower patients’ anxiety levels, the better off they are. Educating patients about what to expect improves both how they do during cancer treatment and how they feel about it. It’s like giving people a passport to their own healing.

That’s why I’m so pleased to be involved in MD Anderson initiatives that ensure our patients receive the best possible care. My role lets me keep enjoying the remarkable relationships I’ve developed by treating individuals, while also putting entire systems in place that help all of our patients.

Enhanced Recovery Program gets cancer patients feeling better faster

As a physician, my goal is to do the right thing for the right patient at the right time, every time. And every other doctor at MD Anderson shares this goal.

It starts with putting extremely talented people together with really good safety and quality practices. Many of these practices are included in our Enhanced Recovery Program (ERP), a set of 21 guidelines initially used before, during and after surgical procedures. Now these same practices have crossed over to medicine and are being used to aid in the recovery of non-surgical patients, as well.

But Enhanced Recovery is more of a philosophy of care than a narrow program. It includes strategies such as minimizing the use of narcotics, aggressive physical therapy, and allowing patients to drink clear fluids up to two hours before a procedure. The idea is to get people feeling better faster, so they can get back to their lives that much sooner. Our motto is: “Back to home, back to family, back to work, back to life and back to self.”

Enhanced Recovery is one of the most valuable advances in 30 years

Enhanced Recovery is arguably one of the most valuable advances that medicine has seen in 30 years. And patients who’ve had surgery using both kinds of recovery plans universally report having a better experience with Enhanced Recovery. Some recover so quickly, they literally spring out of bed after surgery. Many express surprise afterwards at how functional they were, how little pain they had and how quickly they got back to their lives.

We used to tell patients to expect about six weeks of disability after surgery. Now, we’re measuring recovery in days instead of weeks. Some patients ask to go back to work, start driving again or even resume chemotherapy less than two weeks after a procedure. And about 40% of my patients don’t need any narcotics to control their pain: a combination of other agents — including over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen — work just fine.

The future of Enhanced Recovery

At its core, Enhanced Recovery is about examining every step in the cancer care journey, taking out the waste and leaving in the essentials. The data offer compelling evidence that the way we treat patients now is more effective. Notably, Enhanced Recovery has been shown to improve patient results, reduce harm, lower costs for everyone and even to lengthen survival.

The more data we have, the better we’ll be at identifying what’s still not quite right or could be just a little better. Big data and analytics are what will help us make the next big strides in recovery from cancer treatment.

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy have all seen advances in the areas of technology and research. Future success lies in the better sequencing and coordination of those treatments. But regardless of what type of treatment is involved, when we educate patients about what’s going to happen, when and why, we make them partners in their own healing. The impact is substantial.

We can’t ever promise patients a cure, but we can always promise them a plan. Taking away uncertainty — and by extension, anxiety — is perhaps the greatest gift we can give.

Thomas Aloia, M.D., is a liver surgeon and the chief value and quality officer at MD Anderson.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

How I dealt with permanent hair loss and other side effects

When I first lost my hair due to breast cancer treatment, I often heard people say, “Don’t worry. It’s only hair.” The implication was that it would grow back — eventually. But after a while, I began to notice that it was always the people with a full head of hair who said it. And I am one of the very small percentage of women whose hair didn’t grow back after chemotherapy. So, I am still bald to this day.

It doesn’t feel like “just hair” when you’re the only one who doesn’t have any — especially when you’re a woman, and you realize that yours is probably never going to grow back. But I’m OK with being bald now, three years after my breast cancer diagnosis. Because I am cancer-free, too, and that matters far more to me than having hair.

Most unexpected treatment side effect: permanent hair loss

At first, I couldn’t believe I had to give up both my right breast and my hair to be free of cancer. Because here I was, thinking at least I was going to get my hair back, and it turns out the regrowth I’d experienced after treatment was only due to the steroids I’d been taking. It was totally temporary.

I sat in my dermatologist’s office and cried when she told me.

It turns out I’d developed alopecia areata, a condition that makes hair fall out in patches. It can be caused by chemotherapy, but it’s usually reversible. I’ve tried a few things since then to get my hair to grow back, but nothing’s really worked. So, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m probably always going to be bald.

My worst side effect: nausea and vomiting

Permanent hair loss was obviously the most unexpected side effect of my breast cancer treatment. But the worst side effect I experienced was probably nausea and vomiting. Mine was so severe that I had to be hospitalized twice, just to be rehydrated.

The first round of chemotherapy containing doxorubicin, or “the red devil,” hit me really hard. The second round was even worse. I couldn’t keep food or water down, so I had to go to the MD Anderson Emergency Center.

You’d think that in light of that, I would run from the place today, instead of returning to MD Anderson regularly as a volunteer. But if I avoided every building where I’d ever felt bad, I’d have to sell my house. Because I was godawful sick in my home, and MD Anderson fixed me up.

Most pleasant surprise: acupuncture resolved my neuropathy

Another temporary side effect I experienced was neuropathy. For me, that meant pain in the tips of my fingers and toes.

I teach for a living, so I’ve got to be able to use my fingers to type, and I’ve got to be able to stand on my feet for three to five hours in a row to lecture. I simply cannot function professionally otherwise, so I was willing to do whatever it took to fix it.

I ended up going with acupuncture, through MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center. Looking back, it’s kind of funny, because if you’d told me 10 years ago that one day I’d think letting people stick needles all over my body was good idea, I’d have said you were crazy.

But you change your mind about a lot of things when you have cancer. And sometimes, you’ll do anything to stop the pain and suffering.

I did acupuncture twice a week for six weeks. And the neuropathy not only got better — it went away completely. The trick was that we caught it early, when it was still mild. My acupuncturist said if I’d waited until it was more severe, I might have still had some residual pain. But I believe in making the right decision quickly. So, I jumped on it. And it worked for me.

The side effect I avoided and what I still deal with today

One side effect I managed to avoid completely was mouth sores. I’d heard about the horrors of those, so I rinsed my mouth out with a mixture of baking soda and water multiple times a day during chemotherapy. I still have boxes of baking soda left over. I use it to clean my house now.

The only side effects I still deal with today are joint pain from anastrozole, a type of hormone therapy, and sometimes leg cramps. But I made it through the roughest parts of my treatment, so I’m not worried about those.

My doctor told me recently that my follicles are still alive, so theoretically, they could still grow hair again someday. If they ever do, it’s going to have to happen spontaneously, because I’m done trying to force it. In the meantime, no wigs for me. I rock it bald.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

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