How I found hope at MD Anderson during non-Hodgkin lymphoma treatment
In May 2019, a few days after my son’s high school graduation, I woke up to a large lump as hard as a tennis ball on my side. My family and I thought it was a hernia.
I called my doctor and scheduled a CT scan. A biopsy confirmed my diagnosis: aggressive diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In addition, I had a handful of extra cells called Burkitt's lymphoma. My cancer was in my inguinal lymph node, stomach and spleen.
Finding hope at MD Anderson
I was in shock that this was happening, but I anchored in my faith and decided to meet my lymphoma diagnosis head-on. I like to volunteer for a lot of projects, so I decided to treat this like a new project. I learned as much as I could and looked for ways to give back. My motto quickly became: “I have cancer, but cancer does not have me.”
The staff at MD Anderson are so kind, from the doctors and nurses to the transportation and food services teams to the receptionists.
MD Anderson is a place of hope, and the doctors are so creative. If the first treatment does not work, they will find another treatment option. I am lucky to be under the care of lymphoma specialist Dr. Michael Wang and radiation oncologist Dr. Bouthaina Dabaja.
My non-Hodgkin lymphoma treatment
Because lymphoma is a blood cancer, surgery was not an option. My treatment plan included chemotherapy and radiation therapy. My treatment protocol was a chemotherapy combination called R-EPOCH. Each treatment required six days of inpatient hospital care during 21-day treatment cycles. During those six nights, I would receive R-EPOCH, along with a lumbar puncture for the chemotherapy to treat my brain.
MD Anderson became my home away from home. Each time I was there, I knew I was one step closer to being healed.
I completed the R-EPOCH chemotherapy protocol on Oct. 2, 2019. Two weeks later, I began radiation therapy, followed by oral chemotherapy in early 2020. I had to stop the oral chemotherapy due to COVID-19. This type of oral chemotherapy brings my blood counts down, causing a weakened immune system and making me more vulnerable to the coronavirus. I have been going for PET and CT scans every three-four months since Feb. 2020. Once I receive the COVID-19 vaccine, my care team will determine if I will need to resume my oral chemotherapy.
Coping with my lymphoma treatment side effects
Most side effects occurred when I was at home. I would feel much better right before entering the hospital for the next round of chemotherapy. I experienced hair loss between rounds one and two. And chemobrain set in quickly and has not completely gone away.
Oral mucositis was one of my worst side effects. As painful as it was, it was predictable. The ulcers would start two days after my chemotherapy infusions, which lasted for six or seven days per cycle. Oral mucositis usually started on day eight of the cycle and would last about six days. The mucositis ulcers start off like regular mouth ulcers and then multiply rapidly so that most of the mouth (cheeks, under the tongue, sides of the tongue) and down the throat is covered with them. I learned each round to work through them with liquid foods and oral products such as mouth wash, lozenges and throat spray.
Finding life lessons during cancer treatment
As I’ve learned, one of the best tools to fight unexpected moments is to stay positive. Find something to anchor your mindset. For me, it was my faith. For others, it might be meditation or breathing.
Here are the life lessons that helped me through my diagnosis and treatment:
Always take time to be kind.
Have faith over fear.
Always look for the silver linings.
Never miss a moment to help someone.
Pay it forward.
Always look for the helpers.
In everything in life, a positive attitude, faith, family and friends can get you through anything. I have a lot to live for, and I am hopeful not to miss a moment.