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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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13 ways to help someone with cancer during the holidays

The holiday season can be stressful. That’s often even more true for cancer patients and their loved ones, who may be struggling to get in the holiday spirit between cancer treatment and side effects.

So, if you have a friend or family member facing cancer, you may be wondering how you can make the season a little brighter for them. We asked cancer patients, caregivers and survivors in our Facebook community to weigh in.

Here’s what they recommend.

1. Give the gift of time and a listening ear. A friend facing cancer needs you to be there, whether that’s by phone, text, mail, in person or even on social media. Let them talk, cry and be angry if necessary.

2. Hug them. Often.

3. Have a pajama party. Some days, cancer patients may not feel like getting dressed – or may not be comfortable in their usual clothes. But having everyone wear pajamas can make the patient feel more comfortable – and make the day feel more festive. If you can’t have a pajama party in person, send comfy pajamas, slippers and/or a soft, warm throw.

4. Take charge of the decorating. This can be daunting for anyone, but even more so when you’re fatigued from cancer treatment – or from caring for a cancer patient. Make decorating more fun by rounding up friends and family to help, and let the cancer patient relax.

5. Don’t be afraid to say the “c” word. You might feel like you shouldn’t mention cancer, especially if you’re trying to keep someone’s spirits bright during the holidays. But chances are, your friend or loved one is thinking about it. Don’t be afraid to talk about cancer and say, “This stinks, and I love you.”

6. Shop for their gifts and wrap them. This will eliminate a lot of the stress of the holidays and let your friend save energy for fun things.

7. Keep life as normal as possible. Cancer sucks, but there’s still a lot of joy to be found in life. Play games, sing, dance, laugh, share what’s going on in life and don’t be afraid to celebrate. Don’t assume that someone with cancer doesn’t feel well or won’t want to participate. Give them the opportunity to join in the fun.

8. Clean the house. Wash clothes, vacuum, empty the dishwasher, mow the lawn. Do whatever needs to be done – without being asked.

9. Give the gift of food. Bake cookies and make soup. Or, send gift cards to favorite restaurants for a holiday meal. Keep in mind that some patients may not be able to eat food you send due to a compromised immune system or nutritional challenges related to their treatment, but their family and caregivers will almost certainly welcome the meal, which gives them one less thing to worry about during the holidays.

10. Get vaccinated. Certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy – as well as stem cell transplants – can weaken the immune system, putting cancer patients at increased risk for life-threatening infections. So, it’s crucial to make sure you’re up to date on your vaccines — including the Tdap and flu vaccine — before you spend time with a cancer patient or their loved ones.

11. Stay home if you’re sick. Germs, infections and viruses are especially unwanted gifts for cancer patients, putting them at risk of complications.

12. Run errands. This will help cross some things off of your friend or loved one’s to-do list, reduce stress and limit their exposure to germs.

13. Create memories. Whether creating new traditions or maintaining as many old ones as possible, the holiday season is a time to create memories. So make your time together count. This doesn’t require doing something complicated or making crafts. It only requires giving your friend or family member love and attention and really showing up. Use these ideas for making memories last.

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

How I dealt with my worst lung cancer symptom and side effect

I didn’t even know I had stage IV lung cancer until I went to my doctor in September 2016 for back pain. A CT scan revealed large tumors on my left adrenal gland and right lung. They were taking up so much space in my chest and abdominal cavity that they were literally getting on my nerves.

For me, the pain caused by those tumors and the itchy skin rash I developed as a side effect of immunotherapy were the hardest parts of having cancer. But I don’t want cancer to define me.

Here’s how I dealt with both of those issues.

Finding a pain reliever I could tolerate

Most people can go to a doctor and say, “Hey, I’m hurting. Please give me a drug.” But I’m very medication-sensitive, and almost all pain medicine makes me sick. So if I take even one pill, I’ll be puking for hours. It’s just the way I am. I’ve been that way my entire life.

As you can imagine, that makes it pretty hard for doctors to come up with a medication cocktail I can tolerate. Dr. Bonnie Glisson, my doctor at MD Anderson, finally ended up going with an old-school anti-nausea medication called Compazine and a half-dose of a new pain medicine called dilaudid.

My back pain remained an issue until pembolizumab, the immunotherapy drug I began taking, started to shrink my tumors. But once we got the pain under control, I could focus on other things. So then, we dealt with the rash.

Managing an itchy rash caused by immunotherapy

The immunotherapy drug I’m on causes my skin to become extremely dry and itchy. It’s almost like having eczema, so I have to keep my skin moisturized. I’ve managed that condition for almost two years now with an arsenal of creams, ointments and lotions. I also take an over-the-counter antihistamine every day without fail, so it doesn’t itch as bad.

Is the skin rash pretty? No. My legs aren’t real attractive when I have to wear shorts. But my tumors have been stable for more than two years now. So, if that’s the worst thing I ever have to deal with, I feel like I’m doing pretty good.

Managing other people’s expectations

Sometimes, when people see me, they say, “Well, you don’t look sick.” I’m not sure what they think I’m supposed to look like. But I’m happy to prove that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re doomed to an automatic death sentence or a miserable outcome.

Being involved in an immunotherapy clinical trial has been so exciting for me. Because without research, there are no advances. And I believe that with the right medication, even something like stage IV lung cancer can be treated like diabetes, or some other chronic condition. I’m the proof.

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

Stage IV melanoma survivor: An immunotherapy clinical trial saved my life

In 2006, I didn’t have any of the typical signs of melanoma: just a small bump on the top of my head behind my hairline. After a biopsy determined it was cancerous, a surgical oncologist removed it, along with some adjacent lymph nodes on both sides of my neck. After that, I enjoyed three years of being cancer-free. I really thought I’d dodged a bullet, because the tumor was removed with clear margins and none of the nearby lymph nodes had any signs of cancer.

But three years later, a chest X-ray showed shadowing and spots on my lungs. The melanoma had spread. I had three separate lung surgeries over an 18-month period to remove new growths, but the cancer kept returning. By 2011, I had tumors on my lungs, pancreas and liver. One was also growing behind my heart. My oncologist told me there was nothing more he could do. Not being satisfied with that answer, I began to search for alternatives.  

Why I participated in an immunotherapy clinical trial

I wanted to give myself the absolute best chance for survival, so I sought out the best place for cancer treatment. MD Anderson is known for its advanced treatment options. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s been ranked No. 1 in cancer treatment year after year.

At MD Anderson, I met with Dr. Patrick Hwu. After agreeing on a plan of action, he ordered tests to see if I qualified for any kind of targeted therapy. Unfortunately, I was not a good match, so the waiting and search for a viable option continued.  

Then Dr. Hwu told me about a clinical trial involving a new combination of treatments: an immunotherapy vaccine involving the MAGE-A3 protein paired with IL-2. I would get both several times over the course of seven months during weeklong inpatient visits at MD Anderson, then receive just the vaccine at gradually longer intervals until July 2014.

While IL-2 has been around for years as a standalone treatment option, the MAGE-A3 vaccine was the key. In combination with the IL-2, it would trigger my immune system to “seek and destroy” the cancer cells, and continue to be effective for years afterwards. I didn’t have any other options. So, I decided to do it.

Clinical trials: a good opportunity

To remain on the clinical trial, my tumors had to be either stable or shrinking in every scan/MRI after my inpatient treatment. Fortunately, I turned out to be an “unusual responder,” or someone whose body does far better on a particular treatment than anyone expected. Eventually, my tumors disappeared entirely, and I’ve shown no evidence of disease since February 2014. If my scans are clear again in January, I’ll celebrate five years of being cancer-free on Valentine’s Day 2019.

When I think about the day in May 2011 that I was told nothing more could be done for me, the thought of being cancer-free for five years is pretty amazing. So, I encourage people to be open to the possibility of what clinical trials can do.

Just because something is not an approved therapy yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to work. If you qualify for a clinical trial and have done the proper research regarding what it entails, then it could be a good opportunity for a treatment that is not readily available. It may even give you a better chance of survival.

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

How we’re developing the next generation of physician assistants

For anyone looking to change careers, questions abound. Am I making the right decision? Will going back to school full-time pay off? What’s my dream job really like day to day?

For MD Anderson employees looking to become physician assistants (PA), the answers are close at hand, because the institution has a team of mentors ready to share their experiences and guide current employees through the PA school application process.

“The application process for PA school is selective and difficult. Only about a third of the applicants are accepted,” says Jocelyn Mitchell, who worked as a research assistant before linking up with a PA mentor. Mitchell is now a PA in MD Anderson’s Gastrointestinal Center.  

“With a mentorship program like this, we’re helping aspiring PAs stand out during the application process and be successful in their new chosen field,” she says.

Physician assistants: a growing profession

MD Anderson’s physician assistant mentoring program began in 2013, as clinics were growing — and with them, the need for more advance practice providers. Today, MD Anderson employs 325 PAs – more than any other organization in the U.S. – and the growth continues.

“It can be hard to find enough qualified candidates for all of our PA openings,” says Katie DeLucia, associate director in the PA office. “We began this program as a way to recruit from within and guide employees who want the opportunity for growth to get degrees and come back to MD Anderson as practicing physician assistants.”

Each mentee is assigned a current PA as their mentor, and they meet monthly to discuss the mentee’s application to PA school. The mentor answers questions about the profession and provides support throughout the application and interview process. Some mentees take the time to shadow their mentors in the clinic.

“My mentor is fantastic and so encouraging,” says Nichole Flanagan, a senior patient advocate. “It’s a huge confidence booster to have access to this wealth of knowledge, and it means so much to have her read my application materials and hear her say, ‘You can do this!’”

Socials, lectures and other events also expose participants to all aspects of the profession and give them the chance to interact with all of the program’s mentors.

Physician assistants advance patient care

Mentees involved in the program come from across the organization – patient advocacy, clinical research, the blood bank – but what brings them all together is the desire for more meaningful patient interactions.

“Caring and compassion are embedded in our hearts and woven into the fabric of MD Anderson,” adds Flanagan. “I desired to make a larger impact, and seeing our PAs at work fueled that desire. They truly take time to connect and communicate with patients and families. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Training future MD Anderson physician assistants

As more and more employees go through the program – 55 so far – it can seem strange to help prepare employees to leave the institution.

“Every member of our 2017 cohort was accepted to PA school,” DeLucia says. “Thanks to this program’s professional development efforts, our mentees are on their way to becoming certified PAs and returning to MD Anderson in the future.”

This pipeline has served aspiring PAs well, and many hope to pay it forward.

“I plan to return to MD Anderson after graduation,” Flanagan says. “Serving as an advance practice provider would be a full circle experience for me.”

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.

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

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