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Friendship Sustains Anal Cancer Patient During Intensive Treatment

Network - Winter 2012

Mary Elizabeth “Ebba” Dunn of Wetumpka, Ala., begins her cancer story in low-key fashion.

“I had some funny blood work,” she says.

Because of this, her doctor kept putting off a scheduled minor surgery, she says.

The longtime church organist and mother of four daughters explains that when she did convince her doctor to go ahead with a surgery to remove her hemorrhoids, he found a suspicious growth.

Three days later, he called to say she had anal cancer, specifically a squamous cell carcinoma.

Anal cancer is fairly rare — much less common than cancers of the colon or rectum — but rates of the disease are rising.

Fewer than 6,000 cases were diagnosed in the United States in 2011. The average age at diagnosis is early 60s, and it’s somewhat more common in women than men.

If caught early, it's highly treatable.

Dunn knew exactly where she wanted to have treatment. Her close friend Eleanor “Tee” Couch, who’s lived in Houston for many years, works at MD Anderson.

Couch, program coordinator in the Public Education Office, invited Dunn and her husband, Beau, to stay at her house when they came into town for their first appointment.

The couple met Dunn’s physicians: Cathy Eng, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology, and Christopher Crane, M.D., professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology.

Crane designed an individualized protocol for her: a six-week concurrent course of chemotherapy and radiation. “He told us that one treatment type would enhance the other,” Dunn says.

This meant that the couple would need to stay in Houston for six weeks. When they told Couch they’d rent a hotel room or apartment, “She wouldn’t hear of it,” Dunn recalls.

Friend’s home provides respite

It was an intensive treatment, consisting of radiation every weekday morning and a six-hour infusion of chemotherapy on Mondays, followed by wearing a bag of chemo for the rest of the week.

Dunn never felt nauseated, but did consult with a dietitian to help with gastrointestinal side effects caused by the chemotherapy.

And even though she says slyly, “It’s hotter than Wetumpka,” Dunn enjoyed her stay in Houston.

“Anywhere you went, you saw people who were in treatment. That helped a lot,” she says. “There weren’t a lot of people staring at you, saying, ‘Oh, poor you.’”

Dunn looked forward to returning to Couch’s comfortable home in the evenings after treatment. Beau often cooked for the trio.

“I did a lot of reading,” Dunn says. “And we got to watch the Alabama Crimson Tide play on the weekends. I went to church, and tried to be as active as I could.”

Once she had only nine days left in treatment, “I knew there was an end in sight.”

More than a year later, she is active in her church and community, takes a regular exercise class, and works as an extra in movies filmed in the area.

She is grateful for her health and for her supportive family and friends — especially her generous friend Couch.

“Tee was a lifesaver, really,” she says.

Ebba Dunn is a member of Anderson Network, a program of the Department of Volunteer Services that matches cancer survivors with patients going through cancer treatment. 

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center