How MD Anderson saved my eyesight with squamous cell carcinoma treatment
My eye has watered daily for the past 30 years. I always blamed it on allergies, which I’ve had since I was a young child.
But in December 2019, something was different when I touched the corner of my eye. It was very tender and sore. This lasted about 10 days. I started to feel a very tiny bump under the skin at the corner of my right eye by my nose.
I made an appointment with an ophthalmologist in my hometown in Hawaii. That ultimately led to my diagnosis of lacrimal sac squamous cell carcinoma with metastases to the parotid gland.
Being diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma
My local doctor said it wasn’t anything to worry about. But as days went on, I felt like the bump was getting bigger. A few weeks later, I requested a CT scan. That led me to an ocular plastic surgeon, who said I had a blocked tear duct system.
Surgery was scheduled for March 11. But while waiting for the surgery, I noticed the lump grew much larger.
During the surgery, the surgeon cut into the area, immediately saw the tumor and stopped the procedure. I was then referred to an ENT cancer specialist, who performed surgery to remove the tumor near my eye. My surgeons thought they’d removed all the cancer, but the report showed perineural invasion. That’s when my doctors recommended that I travel to Houston to receive proton therapy at MD Anderson.
Traveling to MD Anderson during the COVID-19 pandemic
Once I became a patient at MD Anderson, Dr. Brandon Gunn immediately scheduled me to have additional scans and biopsies to confirm the best treatment plan for me. Since the cancer cells had spread to my parotid gland, Dr. Gunn decided that I needed surgery before proton therapy and chemotherapy.
My care team worked together and paid attention to every detail. MD Anderson scheduled me to take a COVID-19 test the day after I arrived in Texas. When the results came back negative for COVID-19, I was able to proceed with my appointments and scans. I also took another COVID-19 test the day before my scheduled surgery on May 12. It, too, was negative.
My squamous cell carcinoma treatment: surgery, proton therapy and chemotherapy
On May 12, Dr. Stephen Lai, head of my surgical team, performed an extensive 13-hour surgery reconstruction. He removed the cancerous tissue that remained from my previous surgery. This included removing bone in my nasal and sinus cavity, under my eye and adding a titanium plate. This led to three additional surgeries on May 13, 15 and 18. Dr. Lai went out of his way to give me the best care possible. He even came to my room one evening and sat with me and my daughter to make sure I knew my care team was working hard to figure out my complicated case.
My eye surgeon, Dr. Richard Allen, and my plastic reconstruction surgeon, Dr. Edward Chang, took every precaution to ensure there was no damage to my eye. Dr. Chang replaced all the cancerous tissue that was removed with more tissue, muscle, vessels, and skin from my thigh. They made it bulky to protect my face and neck from radiation treatments. My occupational therapist and physical therapist worked with me to lift my leg and slowly be able to strengthen it to walk. The oncology dentist also gave me daily neck and mouth exercises to do.
I stayed in the hospital for 11 days. After that, I stayed at a nearby hotel and came to MD Anderson daily to receive my outpatient treatment.
On June 15, I started 30 proton therapy treatments and six rounds of chemotherapy. Dr. Gunn and his team of nurses and radiation therapists were amazing. The care I received at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center was superb. Dr. Gunn made sure the radiation treatment and the proton beam were exact to have minimal damage to my eye. I was instructed during my treatments to “look up and to the right” until they told me I could relax.
Every employee treated me with respect and made me feel important as a patient. My nurse, Mark Kolodny. answered every question I had. I had very few side effects from the treatments, which I completed on July 24.
My advice for new patients
Even when someone can’t physically be in the room with you, have another set of ears at your appointments, as you might not remember everything. When my daughter could not be at my appointments due to COVID-19 visitor restrictions, I called her so she could listen on speakerphone, take notes and ask questions.
Get a second opinion if you feel uncomfortable. Nobody knows your body better than you do. Find a doctor who will listen. Going to a comprehensive cancer center like MD Anderson where specialized doctors work as a team makes a huge difference in the treatment you receive.
Small goals lead to bigger goals
At my three-month follow-up scan, I received the news that I’m cancer-free with no evidence of disease. The best advice I can give another patient is to always keep a positive attitude and mindset.
Be kind to everyone because you never know what they may be going through. And always remember to celebrate small goals. Small goals lead to bigger goals.