In 2004, after beating cancer twice, out of nowhere Reba Kennedy of Knoxville, Tenn., began experiencing constant, agonizing pain.
"We went several times to the doctor and they checked every way they knew how, but didn't see anything," she says. "But I knew that I was just in so much pain."
Finally, during a routine check-up with her oncologist they found the source -- a large mass wrapped around her ribs.
The diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer shocked Reba, a non-smoker, and her family.
"My doctor told me that the tumor was inoperable and asked if I would like to go someplace else for a second opinion," Reba explains. "I asked him where he would go if it was someone in his family." His answer was MD Anderson.
Hope in Houston, Texas
With that, Reba and her husband, Ron, came to Houston. "She's my whole world, and we were determined to get to best place," Ron says.
Reba admits she had fears about traveling for health care. "You're afraid to leave home, leave your comfort zone where you have your family, your friends, your church, everything," she says.
Soon, Reba was under the care of Anne S. Tsao, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology. "Every patient that comes to us is special," Dr. Tsao says.
A multidisciplinary medical team was assembled and began working on Reba's customized treatment plan. Tsao took Reba's scans to David Rice, M.D., the thoracic surgeon on the team. Together, they spent a lot of time looking at the scans.
"The answer was so simple for MD Anderson," Ron says.
Rice agreed that the tumor could be completely removed, but that it would require taking out part of Reba's ribcage and replacing it with an artificial one.
Reba recalls telling Rice after surgery, "Thank you so much, because that horrible, horrible pain is gone."
He reminded her that she did have an epidural, but she could still tell it was gone. "I was out of the hospital in four days and never even took a pain pill."
After a successful surgery, Reba went home with a carefully orchestrated personalized treatment plan designed by her MD Anderson care team, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
In the seven years since she began coming to MD Anderson, "I've had both of my sons get married and each have two children," she says. "I'm healthy again. I water ski, I play golf, I tube down the mountain in the snow with my grandkids. It's been a completely new life."
Reba credits much of her victory over lung cancer to the support of her husband, children and community. "I could not have done it without the love and support of my husband, that's for sure. He's been by my side all the way. He would put everything to the side to get me where I needed to go," Reba says.
Her son, David, who was just out of college at the time, remembers being afraid but determined to support his mother through it all. "It sounds cliché," he says, "but you can never give up hope, because every case is different. If you get an answer that you don't like, you can always get another answer."
"Every day is a gift," Reba adds. "Every time I go to Houston for my yearly check-up, I take pictures of my grandkids to show Dr. Tsao. I wouldn't have gotten to meet them if it hadn't been for her and for MD Anderson."