Leukemia and male breast cancer survivor: Teamwork makes the difference
at MD Anderson
When I got my second cancer diagnosis in early 2017, I was already going to MD Anderson regularly to see Dr. Alessandra Ferrajoli. I’d been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) the year before after some bloodwork came back abnormal, and I went to MD Anderson on a friend’s recommendation.
At the time, Dr. Ferrajoli had recommended “watchful waiting,” as there was no real benefit to starting treatment until my symptoms reached a certain threshold. Mine weren’t there just yet, but based on my genetic mutations, she suspected I’d need treatment in the not-too-distant future.
I was right on the cusp of making that transition when life threw me another curve ball: I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma — male breast cancer — in January 2017.
Fortunately, I knew just where to turn. First, I got treated at MD Anderson for male breast cancer. Then, I joined a clinical trial there in 2020 for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Interestingly, one of the treatments I got for each disease turned out to be useful against the other one, too. But the most impressive thing to me was how well my doctors worked together.
My male breast cancer symptoms appeared a few years earlier
I’d actually started showing symptoms of male breast cancer a few years earlier, when I discovered a tiny lump under my left nipple. It didn’t really bother me unless I bumped it up against something. Then, it hurt like the dickens.
A surgeon who’d removed a harmless fatty lump called a lipoma from the right side of my chest in 2014 said it wasn’t cancerous. She advised me just to watch it. Now, I wish I’d gotten a second opinion, because by December 2016, that nipple was painful and inverted. A biopsy showed it was cancerous.
MD Anderson used a team approach to treat both of my cancers
This time, my response was to call MD Anderson. I already had a relationship with Dr. Ferrajoli, and I knew that MD Anderson is the undisputed best at treating cancer. Its doctors would know everything there is to know about both of my diseases.
A few days later, I had my first appointment with Dr. Sharon Giordano, an oncologist who specializes in male breast cancer. The minute we met, she told me she’d already talked to Dr. Ferrajoli, and they’d figured out a direction to go that she thought might work well for all of us.
I was impressed. I hadn’t even met this doctor yet, and here she was, already up to speed on my particular situation, and working behind the scenes to make sure everything was well-coordinated. That spirit of teamwork would show up again and again at MD Anderson, and always to my benefit.
For instance, the day before I was scheduled to have a port installed for my breast cancer chemotherapy, I got a phone call saying the procedure had been cancelled. When I asked Dr. Giordano why, she said she’d been talking to Dr. Ferrajoli earlier that day and was reminded that ports weren’t generally recommended for leukemia patients, due to the increased risk of infection. So, I was getting a PICC line instead.
Everything at MD Anderson works well together
That same type of cross-pollination has even shown up in the types of treatment I’ve been getting. The “C” part of the “AC” (Adriamycin/Cytoxan) chemotherapy combination I was prescribed as a part of my breast cancer treatment is sometimes used to treat CLL. So, it temporarily beat back the leukemia, too.
Now, I’m on a clinical trial that combines three established drugs (a targeted therapy called obinutuzumab, an immunotherapy called atezolizumab, and a chemotherapy drug called venetoclax) to treat CLL. I had to wait until Dr. Giordano felt I’d been out of breast cancer treatment long enough to be eligible to join the CLL clinical trial. That turned out to be three years. But the bonus is that one of those drugs — atezolizumab — has also been used to treat breast cancer.
What’s special about this clinical trial
I started receiving CLL treatment through the clinical trial in April 2020, and had my fourth round of it just a few weeks ago. So far, things are going pretty well. My numbers look promising, and it appears that the treatment is working. So, we’re making progress.
The really neat thing about this particular clinical trial is that most CLL medications aren’t designed to cure you. They’re more about controlling the disease, so you can manage leukemia long-term. It’s pretty much expected that you’ll stay on the medications until they stop working, so there’s no real end in sight.
But this drug combination has the potential to cause a deep remission — so much so that one day, I might actually be able to stop taking it. That is a huge step — and one that seems perfectly tailored to me. That’s just one more reason I’m convinced that if you have to go through cancer, MD Anderson is the place to do it.