I had no idea I had mesothelioma until I started getting frequent bellyaches in January 2022. I was an educational consultant at the time, so I just figured my job was giving me an ulcer.
When I finally saw a doctor about them, he confirmed that my bellyaches were caused by stress. But the CT scan he’d ordered also showed a cherry tomato-sized tumor on my pleura, the layer of tissue covering the outside of the lungs. There were several smaller tumors there, too. A biopsy of the largest one showed I had stage I mesothelioma. I was shocked.
My mesothelioma treatment
I’ve lived in Atlanta since 2005. But I lived in Houston for 15 years before that. So, there was never any question about where I would go for my mesothelioma treatment. MD Anderson had already treated me once successfully for breast cancer five years earlier. So, that’s where I was going.
I met first with thoracic oncologist Dr. Frank Fossella. He recommended six infusions of two immunotherapy drugs: ipilimumab and nivolumab. The first infusion went fine. But after the second one, I developed terrible colitis, which is inflammation of the digestive tract.
For me, that meant severe and chronic diarrhea. I had to switch to radiation therapy for the remainder of my mesothelioma treatment. I had three weeks of it under radiation oncologist Dr. Zhongxing Liao, five days a week.
Colitis made me afraid to leave the house
Colitis is terribly debilitating. I was running to the bathroom eight to 12 times a day and still wearing pantyliners as a precaution. I didn’t dare pass gas outside of a bathroom. And I certainly couldn’t go out to eat or to a play or a symphony. Everything I ate just ran right through me. I lost 30 pounds.
Fortunately, my friends were very understanding. They were really good about coming over and bringing lunch with them. But colitis still interfered tremendously with my life. I was always worried about it. Having colitis makes you agoraphobic, or afraid to leave the house.
Why I joined a fecal transplant clinical trial at MD Anderson
At the time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had already approved fecal transplants to treat patients with recurrent C. diff infection. But Dr. Wang was conducting a clinical trial especially for patients like me. Her goal was to see if fecal transplants could be equally effective in patients whose colitis was caused by immunotherapy.
I know the idea of a fecal transplant is kind of gross. But the prospect of getting a better gut biome was extremely appealing, especially since I’d had colitis for eight months by then. After dealing with unrelenting diarrhea for that long, I was more than willing to give it a try. Thank goodness I did. It turned out to be a game-changer.
Dr. Wang performed the fecal transplant on Oct. 5, 2022. It took about four weeks for things to settle down. But when I had my first normal bowel movement last year, I felt like a new parent when their toddler uses the potty for the first time. I was ecstatic. Even better was the news I got in December from Dr. Fossella. He told me that I was in remission.
Why I support research at MD Anderson
The optimism and positive attitude of MD Anderson’s faculty and staff help set the tone for its patients. And the care they provide there is truly second-to-none. That’s why I’m personally donating to support Dr. Wang’s fecal transplant research — so she can help other patients like me with immunotherapy-induced colitis.
Compared to what some people can donate, my contribution is pretty small. But I still want to honor Dr. Fossella, Dr. Wang, Dr. Liao and their wonderful assistants for all they’ve done to restore me to health.
Dr. Wang’s research assistant in particular has been remarkable. Krishna Varatharajalu called to check on me every day after the fecal transplant, then every week after my colitis resolved. She even calls me now from time to time, just to make sure I’m still doing well. So, it was important to me to acknowledge their care and expertise with more than just a “thank you.”