Once you're diagnosed with cancer, what's the first thing you're likely to do? Call your sister? Call your children? Cry? Get mad?
When I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year, I did all of the above. Then, I was calm enough to listen to my doctor and friends who asked about getting a second opinion. But where?
My answer brought me to MD Anderson, a compassionate place that has come to play a role in my life that I wouldn't have dreamed necessary or possible a year ago.
My pancreatic cancer treatment plan
MD Anderson's specialists confirmed the original diagnosis -- inoperable stage III pancreatic cancer.
But MD Anderson prescribed a longer chemotherapy regimen -- eight rounds of chemotherapy, each round being two weeks -- as well as two months of radiation.
MD Anderson recommended the same "chemo cocktail" as my doctor at home. This meant I could do the chemo treatments in my hometown in Virginia.
But I'd have to travel to Houston for the radiation therapy.
Considering the options
I thought long and hard about whether to commit to the MD Anderson protocol or to stick with the strictly chemo-based protocol recommended by my doctors at home.
I liked the option of radiation because I felt it would allow me to benefit from the newest radiation therapy research and give me a better quality of life.
The importance of a second set of ears
For my first visit, I was accompanied by my son and a friend whose wife had battled cancer.
My friend knew his way around MD Anderson and was especially helpful in providing a basic orientation to the huge and impressive campus.
My son served as my second set of ears for this important first visit and every successive visit.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it was to have someone accompany me on my visits with my doctors.
In the throes of my cancer diagnosis, I was experiencing information overload and was also quite emotional and not thinking clearly.
So, it was critical to have another person in the room to hear what the doctor was saying and ask pertinent follow-up questions. There also was a much greater likelihood of remembering a conversation accurately.
A supportive medical team
Throughout my cancer journey, I've made sure all of the reports on scans and doctor consultations from MD Anderson are shared with my local oncologist and vice-versa.
This mutual cooperation and collaboration have been critical in keeping all doctors updated and involved in every stage of my treatment.
I chose to have the doctors at MD Anderson call the shots as far as treatment goes. But my local doctor and his staff are my go-to persons for questions regarding unexplained symptoms that sometimes pop up overnight. I see my local doctor regularly and get blood work done between visits to MD Anderson.
The support team at my local clinic has been critical in keeping me grounded.
And, I am fortunate to have a local doctor who has experience working with long-distance patients and who was willing to carry out MD Anderson's recommendations.
It's important to ask your doctor whether he or she has this sort of experience before starting treatment.
I'm also fortunate that MD Anderson enables patients to ask their doctors questions between visits.
I found the myMDAnderson website particularly helpful for this. I could ask questions and get answers within a short period of time, with more urgent matters handled by phone.
Read my follow-up blog post on relocating to Houston for treatment and the social and emotional support I received.