May 09, 2016
5-time adrenal gland tumor survivor beats weight gain
BY Amanda Norwig
Charlotte Strecker has overcome adrenal carcinoma five times. She’s had several surgeries, taken oral chemotherapy and steroids for years and gained 100 pounds while on steroids.
“It was not an easy journey, but it was actually a blessing in disguise,” she says.
An adrenal gland tumor diagnosis
Charlotte was 27 years old and in her last year of pharmacy school when she began experiencing high blood pressure, nausea and pain that radiated to the right side of her back. After an ultrasound, she was diagnosed with stage III adrenal carcinoma. She had surgery to remove the adrenal gland tumor, but experienced a second recurrence 18 months later.
“It was a complete shock,” Charlotte says. “My physician in New Orleans didn’t know how to treat the cancer at that point, and he referred me to MD Anderson.”
Adrenal gland tumor treatment at MD Anderson
Charlotte has been treated by Jeffrey E. Lee, M.D., since she first came to MD Anderson.
“I knew that I was in the best place possible to get the care I needed,” Charlotte says. “It was actually very reassuring, which gave me a sense of peace that I needed to battle the cancer.”
Under Dr. Lee’s care, Charlotte underwent a second surgery to remove the adrenal gland tumor. Three months later, a CT scan revealed the cancer was back for the third time. She began chemotherapy and steroid treatment.
About two years later, she had her fourth recurrence. Nearly two years after that, she had her fifth recurrence. At that point, Charlotte’s only option was to undergo a third surgery in hopes of removing the cancer for good.
Unwanted weight gain
Charlotte experienced something else that she wishes she hadn’t. She gained nearly 100 pounds. She put on about 60 pounds a year after she began the oral chemotherapy and steroids, and another 40 pounds the next year.
“Dr. Lee asked that I try to lose weight. He said I was going to die from the weight gain before I would die from cancer,” Charlotte says. “I began to cry in his office, and for the first time in a long time, I truly began to look at myself in the mirror.”
Charlotte says the steroids played a role in the weight gain, but so did her depression.
“I was emotionally drained and exhausted from the recurrences,” she says. “I felt like there was no end in sight.”
After her third surgery, Charlotte stopped taking the oral chemotherapy and cut back on the steroids. The weight began to fall off, and Charlotte started to regain her confidence.
A dose of good news
After getting bad news five times in six years, Charlotte has received good news for the past 11 years. Her yearly CT scans and/or MRIs have showed no sign of recurrence.
Charlotte says Dr. Lee gives her a hug every time she sees him. Her father told her about a conversation he had with Dr. Lee before her final surgery.
“My dad told Dr. Lee that he looked tired when he came out of the surgery,” she says. “Dr. Lee said he was up the night before praying for me. His character and belief in a high power are remarkable. I would not have wanted anyone else to be my physician.”
Charlotte says facing cancer has made her more eager to do things that she wouldn’t have considered doing otherwise.
“I’ve learned to never take for granted how much we need our bodies to be healthy,” she says. “I try to take every new experience in as if it is the only time I will be able to experience it. One of my goals is do medical missionary work intermittently in other countries.”
Charlotte hopes her experience will help cancer patients she interacts with in her career as a pharmacist.
“When I meet newly diagnosed cancer patients at the pharmacy, I always mention that I know exactly what they are going through,” she says. “I hope this makes them feel better and more empowered to beat cancer.”
I would not have wanted anyone else to be my physician.