December 01, 2020
Two-time cancer survivor: MD Anderson is helping me beat the odds
BY Vaughn Bryant Jr., Ph.D.
Before 2014, no one in my family had ever had cancer. And everyone I knew who’d had it had died. So, until that year, I assumed that’s just what happened when you got a cancer diagnosis.
Today, I know that belief is false. Because I’ve been treated now for both prostate cancer and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at MD Anderson. And here I am, still alive, at age 80.
I know I may never be “cured,” but so far, I continue to beat the odds. And right now, my cancer is relatively stable. Without MD Anderson’s help, I would’ve died long ago. So, I’m glad I chose MD Anderson for my cancer treatment, and I’m very grateful for the care that I continue to receive.
Why I chose MD Anderson for my prostate cancer treatment
I came to MD Anderson initially because of its advanced diagnostic procedures. It was late 2014, and my PSA levels had suddenly doubled from what they’d been the year before. My doctor said this could be due either to an enlarged prostate gland or to prostate cancer. He wanted me to have a biopsy to find out which one I had.
I was a little reluctant at first. I’d heard from some urologist friends that most of the prostate biopsies performed at the time were “blind.” That meant doctors took samples from random locations around the gland in the hopes of finding cancer if it was present. The problem was that this approach didn’t always work, so sometimes cancerous areas of the prostate got overlooked.
I started doing research online and learned about a diagnostic procedure called an endo-rectal MRI. It boasted near 100% accuracy rates in finding prostate cancer, because doctors took tissue samples from the locations most likely to have it, based on detailed scans. The only place in the southern United States that was offering this technique back then was MD Anderson. I made the call.
My prostate cancer treatment
The results of my diagnostic tests at MD Anderson showed I had an aggressive form of prostate cancer. I met with oncologist Dr. Ana Aparicio to discuss my treatment options. She recommended a clinical trial involving a chemotherapy drug called axitinib. It’s usually used to treat kidney cancer, but she hoped it would shrink my prostate tumor enough that it could be easily removed.
I was up for anything, so I joined the clinical trial. The drug was effective enough that I had the surgery on Dec. 23, 2015. Unfortunately, my surgeon, Dr. Brian Chapin, discovered that the cancer had already spread. He had to remove a part of my bladder during the procedure, as well as 22 lymph nodes. Three of those nodes showed signs of disease. A few weeks later, additional scans showed a tumor on my pubic bone, too.
New developments call for a new treatment plan
After learning how much the cancer had spread, my doctors came up with a new plan. I’d have three rounds of an immunotherapy drug called sipuleucel-T. After that, I’d have cryoablation, a type of ablation therapy in which a probe is placed in the tumor to freeze and kill the cancerous areas.
Interventional radiologist Dr. Steven Huang performed the ablation on my pubic bone on March 20, 2017. At first, it appeared to be successful. But a few months later, my PSA levels began rising again. The cancer was still active.
Over the next three months, I had one more surgery and several more rounds of hormonal therapy. Finally, by the summer of 2017, my cancerous lesions were stable, no new ones had appeared, and my PSA score was “undetectable.” I was elated.
A surprise acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis
Unfortunately, my joy was short-lived. During my final visit with Dr. Aparicio, she ordered one last blood test. It showed that my PSA levels were still undetectable. But it also showed that the rest of my numbers were way off base. A second blood test looked exactly the same. Dr. Aparicio ordered a bone marrow biopsy. That’s when I found out I had acute myeloid leukemia.
No words can adequately convey my disappointment. I’d reached a kind of truce against prostate cancer. And, now I had leukemia? It just didn’t seem fair. Then I thought of all the bald, frail children I’d seen at MD Anderson, and I thanked God for giving me one more day.
My life today
Once I came to grips with my new diagnosis, I met with leukemia specialist Dr. Koichi Takahashi to discuss treatment options. He recommended a month of intensive, inpatient chemotherapy. It would kill the cancer, but it would also severely damage my bone marrow. So, I’d need to remain in isolation at MD Anderson for 30 days. After that, I’d recover at home for three weeks, then return to the hospital for another week of chemotherapy.
The therapy was helpful. So, I’ve been repeating the last two steps of that cycle ever since. And I started receiving stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) in September 2020. My doctors told me in the very beginning that they would never give up on me, as long as I was willing to continue. It’s been three years since my leukemia diagnosis. I plan to keep going as long as I can.
I just turned 80, so I know I’m near the end of my life. And I continue to manage the side effects of fatigue, insomnia, pain, loss of appetite and lymphedema due to my treatments. But I still have some productive years ahead of me, so I want to hold on to every precious minute.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
I plan to keep going as long as I can.
Vaughn Bryant Jr., Ph.D.