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Patient Doesn't Let Heart Failure Get in the Way of Living

Conquest - Fall 2008

By Julie Penne

Tiffany Hebert Spinos survived not only two cancers but also heart failure caused by the lifesaving treatments. Today, her husband and baby daughter own her heart.

Like thousands of survivors and patients, Tiffany Hebert Spinos showed heartfelt courage, strength and persistence to make it through her cancer journey. But deep inside, her heart was left weak and vulnerable, hardly reflective of her true inner core.

Tiffany Hebert Spinos

In 1972, when she was just 18 months old, Spinos was diagnosed with Wilms tumor in her right kidney. When her family learned that the tumor had metastasized to the lung, they made frequent trips from their home in New Orleans to M. D. Anderson where she was enrolled in an aggressive clinical trial. Led by a renown and much-loved pediatric oncologist named Wataru Sutow, M.D., the demanding regimen included an adriamycin-based chemotherapy cocktail combined with cobalt radiation to the chest.

The experimental therapy saved her life but almost 30 years later, after a bike tour of Colorado with friends, the late effects of the treatment nearly killed her.

Spinos, who was by then a survivor of a second cancer, a graduate with a master’s degree in speech pathology and an incoming intern in the Head and Neck Clinic at M. D. Anderson, was laid up in a hospital bed in New Orleans and pumped up with fluids and antibiotics. Her condition stumped 26 doctors, but ultimately, it was a cardiology fellow who made the diagnosis of end-stage heart failure and immediately changed her intravenous drips to diuretics and other medication. Within hours, she was breathing and speaking without gasping.

The cardiology fellow who finally made the diagnosis would not be the first heart specialist that Spinos would come to appreciate.

As a result of her scare in 2000, she came back to M. D. Anderson for her cardiac care, a place where she was most comfortable, yet where her heart failure originated.

Since becoming a patient of Jean-Bernard Durand, M.D., professor in the Department of Cardiology, she has not had another episode of heart failure.

“He knew exactly where my condition came from and what to do, but most important, he listened to my hopes for my life and my desire to not let heart failure take me down,” she says.

Rather, her strengthened heart fell in love, and despite the resounding advice of all her doctors, including Durand at first, she gave birth to a daughter on July 8. Durand was in the delivery room in the event of complications, but she and baby Murphy came through the delivery with little fuss.

“I was thrilled but devastated when I learned I was pregnant. I always was afraid throughout the nine months, thinking that my heart could not withstand the pregnancy let alone the delivery,” she remembers. “I wasn’t even supposed to lift weights. How in the world would I carry, deliver and properly care for my child? I was so glad Dr. Durand was there to remind the doctors in the delivery room that, while on paper, I’m a train wreck, inside, I’m strong and healthy.”

At the end of September, she returned to Texas Children’s Hospital where she works as a feeding and swallowing specialist. She thanks Durand for giving her a healthy and full life, complete with a loving husband and daughter.

“Patients do not need to be afraid of hearing the diagnosis of heart failure,” she says. “The worst part about the experience is the name of the diagnosis. You can come through your cancer and the side effects.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center