New York resident Zulema Arroyo-Farley originally received treatment for soft-tissue sarcoma close to home after her diagnosis in February 2015. But for follow-up care every three months, she flies more than 1,400 miles away to Houston, where she can be seen by MD Anderson’s team of experts.
“I have a very complex medical history, including 13 surgeries and four chronic autoimmune diseases,” Zulema says. “So I wanted to make sure my doctors were really looking at all of my different health problems — such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and lupus — when treating the sarcoma. I wanted to have my sarcoma oncologist looking at how my autoimmune diseases might affect my cancer and vice-versa.”
The search for multidisciplinary care
Zulema scheduled her first appointment here in April 2015, at the suggestion of a fellow sarcoma survivor.
She met first with Janice Cormier, M.D., and peppered her with a load of questions. Because of the location of Zulema’s sarcoma (in the anal muscle and left gluteal muscle), her local doctors hadn’t been able to remove the entire tumor, and Zulema knew sarcomas tend to recur. So she wanted to understand all of her options.
“I probably overwhelmed her,” Zulema says. “But I stayed for three weeks my first visit, so I really got to know her. We built a close relationship.”
The importance of thinking ahead
Zulema was particularly impressed with her doctors’ foresightedness.
“They think holistically,” Zulema says. “When I had surgery for anal lesions in November 2015, Dr. Craig Messick, my colorectal oncologist, told me he wouldn’t be able to give me total relief, because if he did, it could compromise the larger sarcoma resection I might face in the future. Knowing that gave me some peace of mind, and allowed me to continue living my lifestyle without compromising it.”
Making a difference
During her time in Houston, Zulema has also gotten to know Keila Torres, M.D. Ph.D., a fellow Puerto Rican who is researching sarcoma.
“I really believe she’s doing God’s work,” Zulema says. “She is one of those unsung heroes that nobody knows about. But you need money in order to run a lab properly, and she shouldn’t be spending her time seeking grants. So I began thinking about how I could help her. It became a challenge for me.”
Zulema and her husband created a non-profit foundation to support her new friends at MD Anderson and the work they were doing. About 90 people attended the organization’s first event.
“My husband and I are art collectors, and we challenged each of the artists we work with to donate a piece,” Zulema says. “We ended up getting 29 and running out of space.” The event also raised almost $50,000, half of which went to support Dr. Torres’ sarcoma research.
Finding a second home
Today, Zulema and her husband continue to raise awareness about sarcoma and funds to search for a cure. In the meantime, she finds comfort — and multidisciplinary care — at MD Anderson.
“MD Anderson and the city of Houston are like a second home,” Zulema says. “I travel around the world a lot, but here, I have all of these people who truly care for me. I was in Switzerland in February and wasn’t feeling well, so I texted Dr. Cormier. She responded right away. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, she is there for me. From the person who takes the appointment to the physician assistants, they all want to help.”