After she’d been sick with flu-like symptoms for several weeks, Kirsti Hoopingarner decided to see her doctor. She’d been having trouble breathing, so her doctor ordered a chest X-ray and a CT scan.
The results showed a mass on Kirsti’s thymus gland. The 29-year-old was shocked. Her mother had been diagnosed with thymoma when she was 46.
Kirsti had a biopsy of the mass done near her home in Illinois. While her local doctor suspected the mass was cancerous, he did not want to operate. Kirsti didn’t feel comfortable with that and wanted a second opinion.
“Knowing that my mom has been on her cancer journey for many years, I was worried I would be forever fighting thymoma, which was scary to think with two young girls. That was one of the primary reasons I knew I needed a second opinion,” says Kirsti. “I started doing research on my options, and MD Anderson kept showing up at the top of the list.”
She called and made an appointment.
Navigating thymoma treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic
Her first appointment was in March 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic had sent the world into lockdown. Eager to begin treatment, Kirsti drove to Houston from her home in Illinois with her husband.
“We decided to keep our two young daughters at home with family, since we were so concerned about the unknowns of the pandemic. But we were also terrified to be away from them,” recalls Kirsti.
At MD Anderson, Kirsti met with medical oncologist Bonnie Glisson, M.D.After additional tests and imaging, Kirsti was diagnosed with stage III thymoma.
Glisson had concerns about the location of the tumor and potential metastases and referred Kirsti to thoracic surgeon Ravi Rajaram, M.D. He recommended chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumor as much as possible. Even after chemotherapy, Rajaram said that some cancer could remain after surgery, so Kirsti would likely also need radiation therapy.
Glisson worked with her local oncologist so that Kirsti could receive chemotherapy close to home and minimize travel. She received a combination regimen of doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, cisplatin and prednisone.
“After two rounds of chemotherapy, scans showed I was responding incredibly well to treatment – my tumor had shrunk significantly,” says Kirsti, who received two more rounds before surgery.
Kirsti drove back to MD Anderson a week before surgery for COVID-19 testing and blood work. During the nine-hour surgery, Rajaram removed the tumor, the surrounding thymus gland, the lining around the heart, and the superior vena cava, the major vein that drains the upper half of the body.
Surrounding lymph nodes tested negative for cancer, but Kirsti’s care team recommended radiation therapy to ensure remission.
Trusting her care team
Kirsti needed to stay in Houston for six weeks while she received radiation therapy. She stayed at the Rotary House and used the opportunity to recharge.
“We trust everyone at MD Anderson so much,” says Kirsti. “It was so hard to leave my family, but it was nice to be able to rest for a few weeks by myself.”
Under the care of radiation oncologist Aileen Chen, M.D., Kirsti completed 27 radiation therapy treatments. She felt a little fatigued but had no major side effects.
A life-changing second opinion
It’s been almost a year since Kirsti completed treatment, and her scans have shown no evidence of disease since November 2020. She now returns to MD Anderson every six months for follow-up appointments.
“Telling people to get a second opinion can sound cliché, but for me, it was life-changing,” says Kirsti. “Getting a plan in place and being able to check each box when I completed part of my treatment helped get me through.”
Focused on mental and emotional health after cancer
Kirsti advises other cancer survivors to make time for their mental and emotional health.
“One of the things that’s been interesting for me is life after cancer,” says Kirsti. “It’s been more emotional for me than I expected. Everyone around you moves on after treatment, but it’s still a journey. I’m paying attention to my feelings and giving myself space to work through them.”