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People Profile: From Workaholism to Penguins and Volcanoes

Network - Fall 2007

Julie Gomez claims that when you’re raised in Omaha, you’re bred at an early age to savor college football, and there’s only one team: the Nebraska Cornhuskers.You also should be content to live your life out in that nice Midwestern town. And she would have done that. But somehow, despite her college plans to major in music and avoid the business scene, she switched to accounting and took her first job in the skyscraper across the street from her high school in January 1980.

When her company merged with a Houston-based corporation in May 1985, she transferred to the big city. While she wasn’t happy about the move, to her surprise she loved Houston. Even more important, she found she loved traveling. But being a workaholic, she had little time for pleasure trips.

A diagnosis of gastrointestinal carcinoid cancer, a rare and chronic disease for which there is no current treatment or cure, changed all that. She was hospitalized for the removal of the tumor from her small intestine and emerged without her gall bladder, a part of her liver and two feet of the small intestine.

"As with all who have their lives touched by cancer, this drastically changed my outlook on life," she says. "I vowed to cut back my hours at work and to start traveling around the world. My first goal was to see all the places where penguins live. I accomplished that in 2000 after my trip to South Africa."

Her other penguin stops included Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, Australia and New Zealand. After that, she set out to visit places that have volcanoes: Hawaii, Costa Rica, Italy and Greece. Recently, it’s been sporting events that represent the epitome of their type: the Super Bowl in Houston, the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in New York and the World Soccer Cup in Germany.

But her most important journey every Wednesday morning, the one she plans her life around, is to M. D. Anderson where she works as a volunteer in the Hospitality Center, a cozy "living room" in the Main Building, Floor 2, by The Sundial. An offering of the Anderson Network, a patient and caregiver support organization that offers help and hope to other patients, the center provides a place where survivors like her can listen to the concerns and stories of those in the midst of treatment and share their own cancer journey.

Over the years, new tumors have formed, but each time Gomez has been successfully treated with radiofrequency ablation, a procedure during which a probe is placed directly into targeted tissue. It then releases small, curved electrodes that create enough heat to kill unwanted tissue.

"It’s hard to talk about your cancer in the work world or with your friends who haven’t had it. But here it’s normal conversation," she says. "I find it’s very healing."

Gomez is also part of the Anderson Network Telephone Support Line. Over the 12 years since her diagnosis, she has talked with 60 patients diagnosed with her rare disease. That dedication earned her the Telephone Networker Award for 2007.

"When I’m talking to someone with this rare cancer, they say I helped them not feel so alone. Just that human contact with someone who has had it and survived makes a difference. For me, that’s very fulfilling," she says.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center