I had no symptoms for any of them. Each one was found only by chance. But I went to MD Anderson for all of my cancer treatments. And I’m convinced that’s the reason I’m still here today.
My first diagnosis: throat cancer
I received my first cancer diagnosis at age 50. My husband and I were having extra screenings done because if we didn’t use the money set aside in our flexible spending accounts for medical expenses by a certain date, we’d lose it.
A technician saw something weird in my neck during the carotid artery check, so my doctor sent me to a local hospital for a CT scan. When she called the next day to tell me the results, she said I had throat cancer at the base of my tongue. I was convinced somebody had made a mistake. I didn’t have any symptoms.
But after sitting with that knowledge over the weekend, I decided if cancer was what I had, then I was going to the best: MD Anderson. People come from all over the world to be treated there. And, since I live in Austin, it’s practically in my backyard.
I called and made an appointment. The following week, I drove down to Houston to meet with my care team: a medical oncologist, a surgical oncologist and a radiation oncologist. First, they confirmed my diagnosis. Then, they recommended radiation therapy, followed by surgery to remove a couple of lymph nodes and chemotherapy.
My MD Anderson dermatologist, Dr. Saira George, found the basal cell carcinoma during an annual skin check. It was only my second time seeing her. But she was pretty sure a spot on the right side of my cheek was cancer. So, she took a scraping of it for biopsy. I ended up needing surgery and 17 stitches to get rid of it.
The lung cancer diagnosis was the real shocker. I am a lifelong non-smoker. I was at MD Anderson for a routine follow-up in early March 2020. But I wasn’t hydrated enough for them to get an IV started for the CT scan contrast. My doctor suggested I have a chest X-ray instead. That revealed a suspicious area in my right lung.
A PET scan confirmed something was off in there. But I needed a lung biopsy to be sure. By that time, the entire world had shut down due to the pandemic. So, I couldn’t get in to have one until June. Once I did, I was diagnosed with stage III adenocarcinoma of the lungs. The cancer had already spread to my sternum and lymph nodes.
After resolving those issues and finally finishing chemo, I had surgery to remove about two-thirds of my right lung. Then, I started taking osimertinib (Tagrisso), a type of oral targeted therapy that had just been approved the month before for the treatment of lung cancers with the EGFR mutation.
Fortunately, all of my hair grew back after chemotherapy, and my care team did a great job of keeping my nausea under control with medications. I’ve shown no evidence of disease (NED) for any of those cancers since October 2020. To me, that’s one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language. So, I’ve decided if I ever get another dog, I’m going to name it “NED.”
What I tell people about MD Anderson today
Today, I tell people two things when I hear they have cancer:
Get to MD Anderson. They listen to you there.
Hang on. Something amazing might be just around the corner for you.
I tell people the first thing because my late mother struggled with lymphedema. So, I asked my breast surgeon, Dr. Makesha Miggins, to be really aggressive in removing any breast tissue, but really conservative in removing any lymph nodes. She heard my concerns. Thankfully, she ended up only needing to take out two sentinel lymph nodes during my lumpectomy. I never had lymphedema.
I also tell people what my lung surgeon, Dr. Ara Vaporciyan, did for me. When he found out I was afraid to go scuba diving after recovering from my lung surgery, he insisted on talking out my fears. He knew that activity was very important to me, so he wanted to reassure me that there was nothing medically holding me back. It essentially opened my life back up. I went scuba diving 10 times over five days off the coast of Jamaica to celebrate my 25th anniversary in April. It was magical.
I tell people the second thing because of the drug I’m taking now. When it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in December 2020, the five-year survival rate for stage III lung cancer was only about 33%. It’s up to 89% now. And I got that drug almost as soon as it became available because MD Anderson is on the cutting edge.