MD Anderson saved my life — and my adolescent daughter’s

Cancer doesn’t run in my family or my husband’s. Only one of my ancestors had it: my paternal grandmother died of lung cancer when I was 11. But she was 64 and a long-time smoker, so her diagnosis didn’t really come as a surprise.

What did come as a surprise was my own metastatic melanoma diagnosis in August 2013 — and my daughter’s metastatic osteosarcoma diagnosis just one year later. I was 42 when I learned that I had cancer. My daughter was 12.

Both of our cancers turned out to be pretty rare. But even the most unusual cancers are not rare at MD Anderson, so I knew its doctors had the expertise to help us. And after receiving treatment there, both my daughter and I are now cancer-free.

My melanoma diagnosis

My first melanoma symptom was a swollen lymph node under my right arm. My gynecologist spotted it on my annual mammogram, but dismissed it as a minor infection when a breast ultrasound showed nothing suspicious.

A year later, the lump was still there, so my doctor ordered a biopsy and a PET scan. The results showed that I had cancer in my right lung and other lymph nodes, but not what kind. Sarcoma or melanoma were the most likely candidates.

Since my local doctor was certain that I had cancer, I went ahead and had surgery near my home in Mexico City to remove part of my lung and the affected lymph nodes. But I decided to seek a second opinion before doing anything else. I just didn’t feel comfortable starting chemotherapy until I knew precisely what type of cancer I had.

Why I went to MD Anderson

I chose MD Anderson for the remainder of my treatment after sending my tissue samples and pathology reports to several large American cancer centers. MD Anderson was the only one that gave me a firm diagnosis: I had stage IV melanoma.

When I came to MD Anderson in August 2013, Dr. Agop Bedikian (now retired) told me that my disease stemmed from an “unknown primary tumor.” That meant my body had killed off the original source of the cancer, but not before it had spread to other locations.

Even though the surgery I’d had in Mexico City had removed all visible traces of cancer, Dr. Bedikian recommended four rounds of chemotherapy, just to be safe. I stayed at MD Anderson for a week each time I had an infusion of biochemotherapy – a treatment combining cisplatin, vinblastine, interleukin-2, dacarbazine and interferon.

The nausea and neuropathy caused by that combination were sometimes hard to deal with, but the results of my treatment were extraordinary. I’ve been coming back to MD Anderson for check-ups with Dr. Sapna Patel every three or four months ever since, and I continue to show no evidence of disease.

My daughter’s osteosarcoma diagnosis

But our story doesn’t end there. Four months after I completed treatment, my daughter Eva started suffering constant pain in her left leg. An orthopedic doctor said there was nothing wrong, so we assumed it was just a sprain or a growth spurt. But the pain never went away.

By the time we returned from our summer vacation that August, Eva could barely walk. We took her back to the orthopedist, who ordered an MRI. That scan revealed a big mass on the left side of her pelvis. She also had lots of little growths in her lungs.

Eva had metastatic osteosarcoma, a rare kind of bone cancer.

Why we chose MD Anderson for our daughter’s surgery

To shrink the cancer, my daughter endured 20 rounds of chemotherapy. Then, she had a 13-hour procedure called an internal hemipelvectomy at MD Anderson. During this highly specialized surgery, Dr. Valerae Lewis removed the tumor within the left half of her pelvis.

We chose Dr. Lewis because every other surgeon we’d consulted had recommended amputation. And while our priority was saving Eva’s life — not her leg — we wanted to preserve that, too, if we could. Dr. Lewis assured us that other patients who’d had hemipelvectomies had learned to walk again unassisted, without prostheses, and Eva would, too.

Eva had the hemipelvectomy on Nov. 3, 2014. Three months later, she had another surgery at MD Anderson to remove the remnants of the 25 small tumors from her lungs. She stayed at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital for three weeks to recuperate.

Gratitude for our cancer-free lives

Compared to everything my daughter went through, my cancer experience seems like a mild case of the flu. But we’ve both come such a long way. And we have so many things to be grateful for.

I’ve shown no evidence of disease since December 2013, and other than a little fatigue, I have no lingering side effects. Eva is cancer-free, too, and she’s walking again without any assistance, thanks to physical therapy. She’ll be a senior in high school this fall, and is planning to study molecular biology.

I can’t thank everyone at MD Anderson enough. My daughter and I wouldn’t be here without the care, love and strength of so many doctors, nurses, physical therapists, child life specialists and other staff. They have been by our sides at every step. And each and every one of them will be in our hearts forever.

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