Family touched by cancer invests in research and patient wellness initiatives at MD Anderson
Arlene Holden’s family knows all too well that cancer touches everyone. Over the past two decades, Arlene’s daughters, Gayle Kuoni and Lerryn Carl, both faced their cancer diagnoses. For Gayle, treatment was effective and gave her a positive outcome, but for Lerryn, there was devastatingly little that could be done.
First in memory of Lerryn’s life, and then later in honor of Gayle’s recovery, Arlene established four endowed funds at MD Anderson, known collectively as The Sisters Funds, to support cancer research and patient wellness initiatives.
For Arlene and Gayle, these gifts represent a celebration of life and hope for the future of cancer care — life and hope they wish Lerryn also could have enjoyed.
An unexpected lung cancer diagnosis
When Lerryn was diagnosed with advanced-stage non-small cell lung cancer in early 2004, her family was shocked. Lerryn was a seemingly healthy, active mother of six children and had never smoked. In the preceding months, she had developed a cough and a small spot on her lung. Initially, her doctor told her it was nothing to worry about and to check back in a year. But as her cough worsened over the next few months, she decided to seek a second opinion at MD Anderson. By the time she was diagnosed, the cancer was in both lungs and had metastasized to her liver. One of her lungs was completely engulfed in fluid. Despite best efforts, within 3 ½ months, Lerryn died at only 50 years old.
“None of us ever expected what happened,” Gayle says. “She received excellent care at MD Anderson, but there wasn’t a lot that could be done.”
Shortly after Lerryn’s death, Arlene and her family and friends established the Lerryn M. Carl Endowment for Lung Cancer Research to help doctors find better treatments for future patients. “I’d never heard of lung cancer affecting nonsmokers until then,” Arlene says. “I wanted to do something to help. This needed to be studied more.”
Frequent monitoring leads to early breast cancer diagnosis
She didn’t expect anything abnormal when she went in for her breast MRI in February 2021, especially since she couldn’t feel any lumps and her last mammogram had been clear. But the moment Therese Bevers, M.D., walked in, Gayle could tell from her expression that something was wrong. After discussing the results, she scheduled a biopsy at MD Anderson The Woodlands, near her home.
Gayle was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of cancer. In triple-negative breast cancer, tumors do not have the three receptors commonly found in breast cancer cells. This means the drugs routinely used to treat breast cancer are less effective.
“You never think you’re going to hear the word ‘cancer’ about yourself,” Gayle says. “Because of my medical background, I knew it was extremely fast-growing and that the prognosis could be a tough one.”
Gratitude for successful breast cancer treatment
Gayle underwent six months of aggressive chemotherapy followed by a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery. Despite the physically demanding treatment protocol she received, Gayle says she feels very fortunate to now be cancer-free.
In celebration of Gayle’s recovery and the excellent care received at MD Anderson, Arlene established two more endowed funds to support breast cancer research. The Sisters Funds: Gayle Monroe Kuoni Breast Surgical Oncology Research Endowment supports research by breast surgical oncologist Kelly Hunt, M.D., who performed Gayle’s nipple-sparing double mastectomy. The Sisters Funds: Gayle Monroe Kuoni Breast Medical Oncology Research Endowment supports triple-negative breast cancer research under breast medical oncologist Debu Tripathy, M.D.
“The compassionate, caring and brilliant professionals at MD Anderson guided my daughter through her diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Hunt, Dr. Oke, Dr. Kapur and their teams were all extraordinary,” Arlene says.
An advocate for patient wellness
Although Gayle had administered chemotherapy as a nurse, she says it was a completely different experience being on the receiving end as a patient.
“I typically handle stress very well, but when this happened, it brought me to my knees,” she says. “I decided I was going to do whatever I needed to do to get through this in the best possible way.”
She says the experience taught her the importance of being her own advocate. For Gayle, that meant communicating with her care team whenever she had questions or concerns about her treatment or side effects. She knew the physical toll of chemotherapy could be rough, so she sought out referrals for patient wellness specialists in nutrition, behavioral health and integrative medicine. These resources equipped her with techniques and information about diet, mental health, exercise and meditation that helped lessen the side effects of treatment.
Gayle’s experiences inspired her mother to establish a fourth endowed fund at MD Anderson for patient wellness, The Sisters Funds: Gayle Monroe Kuoni Patient Wellness Endowment. This fund supports
MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center and wellness programs for patients, such as meditation, music therapy, acupuncture, massage and yoga.
“I wanted Gayle to get well,” Arlene says. “Now I want to help other patients get through treatment. Wellness strategies are a very important part of cancer treatment.”
Gayle agrees, offering the following encouragement to those undergoing treatment: “Do things that make you feel good. Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself. Let friends and family help you. Use your support systems and find supportive strategies that will be a good fit for you. Be your own advocate.”