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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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Conjunctival melanoma survivor: MD Anderson saved my eye and my life

I’ve always been a bit of an extremist. So, when I learned that skin cancer runs in my mom’s family, I started seeing a dermatologist immediately. And I was vigilant about it, too. I’d literally take off all my clothes and make the doctor look everywhere during my annual exams. It was almost awkward.

I also became the “mean” mom — the one who makes everyone else’s kid wear a hat and sunscreen while they’re playing outside.

So, when I was diagnosed with conjunctival melanoma — a rare type of eye cancer — in February 2015, I wasn’t really concerned about losing my vision. I was only 30 at the time and my daughter was just 15 months old. But after Googling it — I know: the exact wrong thing to do — I was afraid I was going to die. So I was like, “I’ve got two eyes. Just take the bad one out. Let’s go. ”

Thankfully, Dr. Bita Esmaeli, my doctor at MD Anderson, was much calmer and more rational about it than I was. She told me, “Look, we don’t really have to do that anymore. And we have many other effective options to try first, before removing your eye.” As it turns out, she was right.

My sole eye cancer symptom

Ironically, I had one eye cancer symptom for half my life before I finally saw a doctor. I’d been poked in the eye during a basketball game when I was 15, and it formed a small blood blister on my right cornea. The blister eventually went away, but it left behind a little brown pigment. I know now that conjunctival melanoma can start from any abnormal growth of cells like that, even a freckle. But back then, I just thought of it as residue from the eye injury, like a scar.

My eyes are naturally very dark brown, so the brown spot looked like a tiny part of my iris was leaking out. It wasn’t big enough that people really started commenting on it until after my daughter was born in October 2013. I’d noticed it growing while I was pregnant with her. But I’d also had 20/20 vision or better all my life, so I’d never been to an ophthalmologist.

Then my eye began feeling really itchy. I started blinking and rubbing it, and when I pulled my hand away, I saw a single drop of blood. That kind of spooked me, so I went to a local emergency room. The doctor there did a biopsy. And that’s when I found out I had eye cancer.

Finding the right doctor for my eye cancer treatment

I could not wrap my head around my diagnosis. Most people who have it are older white guys in their 60s, pale with blue eyes. I am all brown, with a dark complexion just like my dad.

I became determined to learn as much as I could about eye cancer. As soon as I had an actual diagnosis, I downloaded 30 different scientific papers from the internet. The top three were specific to my exact type of cancer, and Dr. Esmaeli was the author of two of them. That cemented where I wanted to go. I called and made an appointment at MD Anderson, then drove the eight hours from Lubbock to Houston a few days later.

My eye cancer treatment

After discussing my history, looking at my records and conducting her own examination, Dr. Esmaeli prescribed four rounds of an eye-drop chemotherapy called mitomycin to treat my conjunctival melanoma. I’d need to apply it four times a day for four days in a row, then wait 10 days before starting a new cycle.

Eye drops don’t affect your whole body, so I didn’t experience any of the usual chemotherapy side effects, such as nausea, fatigue or hair loss. But I was still essentially dropping poison in my eye every day, so it could definitely be painful. It also made my right eye super sensitive to light, and I’d get headaches.

The chemotherapy eye drops kept the cancer at bay until I conceived my second child in late 2017. I watched the small dark spot getting bigger as my pregnancy progressed. After my son was born in August 2018, Dr. Esmaeli confirmed that the cancer had returned. She performed surgery to remove the growth, sparing my eyeball, and I completed five more rounds of eye-drop chemotherapy afterward. I’ve been cancer-free since November 2018.

My life after eye cancer

My vision won’t ever be 20/20 again. I’ve also lost some mucosal cells, so my right eye gets uncomfortably dry at times. But I still have both eyes and I don’t need corrective lenses to see, though I do have to wear eyeglasses that filter out blue light when I look at computers or other screens. So, if that’s the worst thing I ever have to deal with, that is perfectly fine.

Most people can’t actually see their cancer coming back. But I can look at the exact spot where it was in the sclera (the white part of my eyeball) every day, so I know where to look for it and what to look for (a brown haze). That’s a little bit of a blessing.

Because the chances of eye cancer coming back are so high, I still have check-ups every three months with Dr. Esmaeli. For the four years I lived in Lubbock, I traveled the 500+ miles to see her in Houston quarterly. And since moving to Tennessee over the summer, I’ve already traveled the 700+ miles from Clarksville once.

But I won’t switch doctors or hospitals, no matter how far away I may move. Because Dr. Esmaeli is the leading expert in my exact type of cancer. And MD Anderson is the best cancer hospital in the world. I see that now more clearly than ever.

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

7 things to know about menopause and breast cancer

Most women naturally go into menopause when they’re in their 40s or 50s. That’s because as a woman ages, she has fewer reproductive eggs and her estrogen and progesterone levels decline. After 12 months of not having a menstrual cycle, she’s considered to be in menopause.

But for women undergoing breast cancer treatment, menopause can start earlier and feel more extreme.

Breast cancer treatment can speed up the process and intensify the symptoms,” says Bora Lim, M.D.

Typical menopausal symptoms include hot flashes, mood swings and weight gain. Some women also experience changes in their metabolism and cholesterol levels.

Here are seven things women with breast cancer should know about menopause.

Chemotherapy can cause temporary menopause

Chemotherapy fights cancer by attacking any rapidly growing cells. Women receiving chemotherapy – regardless of the type of cancer they’ve been diagnosed with – are at risk of the drugs attacking the ovaries. “Chemotherapy basically puts the ovaries to sleep,” Lim says. The ovaries stop processing the eggs, the woman stops having a period and she goes into temporary menopause.

In most cases, menstruation returns naturally eight months to two years after chemotherapy stops. However, research shows that women who experience temporary menopause during treatment tend to go into complete menopause earlier than others. “But it really depends on the patient,” Lim adds.

However, if a woman is already nearing menopause, chemotherapy may put her into complete menopause and her period may never return.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about whether your menopausal symptoms are permanent. “Bloodwork can help us understand what’s happening and prepare you for the future,” Lim says.

Temporary menopause can help preserve fertility

If a woman is hoping to get pregnant after treatment, temporary menopause can help preserve fertility by protecting the eggs during chemotherapy.

Younger patients may have the option of taking medications to begin temporary menopause before starting chemotherapy. “It’s the same concept as when you put food in the refrigerator to preserve it for a while,” Lim says. “We’ll put the eggs into a frozen-like state so they can stay fresh without getting attacked by chemotherapy.”

Treatment-related menopause can feel more extreme

Menopausal symptoms can seem more exaggerated in breast cancer patients. When it occurs naturally, menopause takes a few years from the time your period gets interrupted to the time it completely stops. But cancer treatment can speed up the process so that it takes only a few months.

“Because they come on so quickly, patients can have a harder time coping with the symptoms,” Lim says.

The level of hormones in younger patients is also much higher at the start of menopause, so the symptoms can feel much more extreme, Lim adds.  

Hot flashes are linked to hormone therapy

About 60% to 80% of breast cancers are fueled by estrogen or progesterone. These are known as hormone receptor-positive breast cancers. Some ovarian and uterine cancers are also linked to these hormones.

During your period, hormone levels spike, and any estrogen or progestogen signal in the body can wake up the cancer cells and lead to a recurrence, sometimes even decades later.

To help lower hormone levels after cancer treatment, many women undergo hormone therapy. Also known as endocrine therapy, it works by either blocking the hormones or by preventing the body from making them. Examples of hormone therapies include tamoxifen, raloxifene, ovarian suppression injections and aromatase inhibitors. These medications are typically taken for five years.

For many women, hormone therapy can speed up menopause and its symptoms. “Almost half of women on these therapies experience related hot flashes,” Lim says.

Menopause helps lower recurrence risk

If you have a high risk of breast cancer recurrence, your doctor may recommend inducing menopause by surgically removing the ovaries or with medications that train your body to stop the menstrual cycle.  

“We try to do everything we can to limit the risk of recurrence, so if we reduce hormones, we cut off the food for the cancer cells,” Lim says.

Menopause has drawbacks for cancer survivors

There are downsides to menopause, too. In addition to the common menopausal symptoms, low estrogen levels can affect bone density and heart function. But there are steps women can take to manage these side effects.

“It’s a give and take, but for most women, lowering their cancer risk outweighs the discomfort of menopause,” Lim says.

Medications and lifestyle changes can offer relief

There are several ways to cope with menopausal symptoms, says Lim. The first approach is medication. A low-dose antidepressant can help with hot flashes and mood swings.

Lifestyle modifications can help, too. For example, Lim recommends you get a good night’s sleep, exercise regularly, and reduce caffeine and alcohol intake.

“It’s hard, but everything in moderation is the best approach,” Lim says. “And this healthy approach can help keep the cancer from coming back because it reduces your fat and increases your muscle mass, which can lower the level of estrogen in your body.”

Integrative medicine techniques such as acupuncture, meditation and yoga have been proven to relieve menopausal symptoms as well.

It can also help to keep a diary of when you feel menopause symptoms. “This lets us anticipate them and have the tools ready to help you cope,” Lim says.

She advises talking with your doctor about anything unusual that you’re experiencing. “Even if it’s silly and you don’t know if it’s a relevant, it’s better to share more than less,” Lim says. “That way, we can help you feel as normal as possible.” 

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

Young adult thyroid cancer patient grateful for personalized care

After I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis at age 15, I began having my thyroid monitored regularly. In 2012, during a checkup in Tyler, Texas, an ultrasound showed two abnormal nodules. 

I visited an endocrinologist, who told me not to worry. But in 2017, I started noticing changes in my voice. I had trouble swallowing, major fatigue and flu-like symptoms. I decided to seek a second opinion. That’s how I found out, at age 25, that I had stage I papillary thyroid cancer.

The internet helped me choose MD Anderson

I used the internet to decide where I should go for thyroid cancer treatment.

I wanted to find someone who had the best qualifications and could offer the best treatment for someone my age. I also wanted to learn about my doctors before my first appointment.

On MD Anderson’s website, I got to know Dr. Jeena Varghese and Dr. Elizabeth Grubbs before I ever met them. I appreciated learning about their experience treating thyroid cancer.

Personalized thyroid cancer treatment with my age in mind

My care team always considered my age when weighing my treatment options.

We decided on a total thyroidectomy. It was important to me that my scarring was minimal and that I didn’t lose my voice.

My care team knew that I might have trouble healing after the procedure, and understanding the potential complications of my surgery, Dr. Grubbs consulted plastic surgeon Dr. David Adelman.

He suggested using cow collagen to promote healing and minimize scarring after my thyroidectomy. Dr. Adelman had used cow collagen in reconstructive surgery for many other patients with difficult wounds.

My first thought was, “What am I signing up for?” But I trusted Dr. Adelman. I knew that if my procedure was successful, it would mean better healing and fewer complications for me.

Innovative plastic surgery minimized my surgical scar

On May 10, 2017, Dr. Grubbs removed my thyroid and the lymph nodes around it. Dr. Adelman then closed the incision with cow collagen.

During my recovery, I had a lot of swelling, so I had to be careful when eating and drinking. I couldn’t hold my head up for very long without becoming tired, and my body was adjusting to losing my thyroid, so I had to lie down more often.

But I have no regrets about letting Dr. Adelman use cow collagen to close my incision. It healed well, and you can barely tell I have a scar.

I came back to MD Anderson to have my incision checked, and during one of my follow-up appointments with Dr. Adelman, I pretended that I had symptoms like uncontrollable mooing from the cow collagen.

He took this very seriously, which showed how much he cares about his patients, though we had a good laugh afterwards.

Adolescent and Young Adult Program helped me cope

Having cancer at 25 put me in a weird spot. I wasn’t a pediatric patient, and I wasn’t able to relate to the issues adult patients faced. But MD Anderson’s Adolescent and Young Adult Program helped a lot.

During one appointment, I told my social work counselor that it was awkward when people asked about my prognosis. I felt uncomfortable trying to explain that I wasn’t in treatment anymore but was still getting checkups.

The social work counselor said that I could tell people that I was in active treatment. That took something that I thought was complicated to explain and gave me tools to make it simple.

The life ahead of me

I come back to MD Anderson every six months for ultrasounds, and I take Synthroid daily as a part of my cancer therapy to regulate my hormones and reduce my risk of recurrence. Sweating and other side effects it causes can be uncomfortable, but I manage.

I’m grateful that my MD Anderson team listened to me and thought about my future. As I’ve learned, life can still be beautiful after cancer. Because of MD Anderson, I have a beautiful future ahead.

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

Osteosarcoma survivor: Life after cancer can be amazing

Although it’s been 18 years, I still clearly remember how scared my family was when I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in my right femur at age 18. Looking back, I believe my youth and lack of understanding surrounding cancer kept my own anxiety in check. I’d noticed the bump above my knee but didn’t think much of it at the time. A family friend, who happened to be an orthopaedic surgeon, urged me to get an X-ray. After examining the images, he told my parents to make me an appointment at MD Anderson. He suspected that I had cancer and wanted me to receive the best treatment available.

Not only was I young and supposed to have my whole life ahead of me; I was also in my second trimester of pregnancy with my second child.

Starting osteosarcoma treatment while pregnant

Expecting a baby added a layer of complication to my treatment. I discussed several options with my care team, led by Dr. Robert Benjamin. I decided to wait until my third trimester to begin chemotherapy in order to give my daughter as much time as possible to grow and develop. Thankfully, the waiting period was only a few weeks.

I was scheduled to begin chemotherapy treatment on Sept. 11, 2001. Given the uncertainty and fear that surrounded the country that morning, my treatment was postponed briefly. I did three rounds of the chemotherapy drugs Adriamycin and Cisplatin, then delivered my daughter six weeks early in November 2001. She was perfect and had a full head of hair, which surprised my doctors. Since she was born early, she stayed in the NICU for a few weeks so that she could gain weight. She is now a beautiful 17-year-old and does not appear to have suffered any side effects from my treatment.

Juggling cancer treatment and motherhood

Shortly after delivery and another round of chemotherapy, I had a limb-salvage surgery to remove the tumor in my leg. I had a radical resection of my right distal femur, which was reconstructed with an intercalary allograft using donor bone. My surgeon used a metal plate and a piece of my fibula to reinforce the area.

I had another year of chemotherapy after surgery. I was prescribed a high dosage of Ifosfamide, but, due to complications, I was put on a high dose of methotrexate, then Adriamycin and Dacarbazine.

Having a brand new baby and another young child while going through treatment was a struggle. My parents and sister put their lives on hold to help me through treatment and take care of my kids. They stepped in and did what needed to be done. We were in survival mode.

Any time that I felt good, I wanted to be out and playing with my children. When I felt bad, we would stay in bed and watch movies. Cancer became a part of our family story; my kids didn’t know anything was different. When my kids were small and asked how I got the scar that extends from my hip to my ankle, I told them that I was swimming and a shark got me, but I beat that shark up! I used that metaphor until they were old enough to understand what cancer was.

Following treatment, I feel that I am very in tune with my body and my children’s bodies. I encourage them to always be aware of how they feel and, if something doesn’t feel right, to seek advice or help. It is just one of the ways that my cancer journey has shaped our family.

Using my osteosarcoma experience to serve others

At the time of my diagnosis, I knew in my heart that cancer treatment was something I had to go through to move on with my life. I did not place any limitations on myself after treatment, and that enabled me to surpass my doctor’s expectations for my post-surgery mobility. Almost two decades later, I’m still actively recovering and working on my leg function. I work as a fitness instructor and have dedicated my life to helping others become and stay healthy through exercise. I have also had the opportunity to speak at various MD Anderson functions to share my cancer journey to inspire and give hope. Life after cancer can be amazing!

Many years ago, I made a choice not to let cancer define me but to use it to my advantage. You can either let cancer make you feel defeated or you can use cancer to learn and help others.

After treatment, I found myself wondering, “How can I serve others? Who can I reach out to?” I decided to volunteer with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s cancer support community for patients, caregivers and survivors. I love talking to other patients who have questions or anxieties that I can help with. I always tell them that the road to recovery is difficult, but the mind is so powerful. So, don’t give up and instead use your fear as fuel.

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

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