“Moon Shot” against cancer

The front-page of The Houston Chronicle today has some very exciting news. The headline reads “$3 billion aimed at tough cancers.”

This got my attention.

The famed MD Anderson right here in my lovely city is going after 8 of the deadliest, most difficult cancers, and has most definitely put its money where its mouth is. By sending $3 bil straight to the front lines, Anderson isn’t playing around. The 8 cancers on Anderson’s radar are lung cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, melanoma, Acute lyeloid leukemia (AML), Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), Myelodysplastic syndrome, and triple-negative breast cancer. The newspaper article has this handy graphic that highlights the most pressing deets about the 8 cancers under seige.

The latter really got my attention, as all BC news does. What is triple-negative breast cancer, you might ask? It’s a particularly wily form of the dreaded disease that displays negative properties for estrogen- and progesteron reception as well as HER2 reception. Read a more detailed definition here,but suffice to say that this type of BC doesn’t respond to hormones, making it harder to treat.

mdanderson.org

This news is so hopeful in a landscape of cancer. A veritable ray of sunshine, the Moon Shots program has tons of potential and will surely make the kind of inroads to the “war of cancer” that President Nixon declared way back in 1971 and that has yet to come to fruition. The so-called war is almost as old as I am, and yet we see newly diagnosed cases and deaths from cancer in such shockingly high numbers. Bring on the Moon Shots program!

I have a lot more to say about this program, and will return to it after I finish my to-do list left to me by my favorite girl, who has been hard at work planning a first birthday party for her little piggie. Yes, you read that right: a party for a pig.

I’ll leave you with a quote about the Moon Shots program that has me smiling big this morning:

“In almost every disease, we have an example of something that works. Once you have a first step, it’s easier to take the second, the third.” – Gordon Mills, head of systems biology, MD Anderson

Here’s to giant steps being made toward these 8 deadly cancers. Three cheers for MDA!


Fighting from the front lines

I’m always on the lookout for inspiring stories about cancer: patients, survivors, battles won, valiant fights fought. This story found me, via the local newspaper last week, and it’s been on my mind ever since. I am bowled away by this woman. Her attitude is nothing short of fantastic, and her drive to make a difference in the “war on cancer” is inspiring, for sure. Because I’m juggling 4th grade homework on units of measure and a 7th grade study guide on Texas history with the usual chores, animal herding, and the ever-elusive hunt for something healthy/yummy/pleasing to 4 different palates before another weeknight at the baseball fields, I’m going to just relay this story simply and without a lot of editorializing. You’re welcome.

Chisa Echendu had her eye on a doctorate in medical research from Baylor College of Medicine, right here in good ol’ Houston. The 32-year-old Nigerian native had every intention of spending her career in a lab, peering into a microscope and solving medical mysteries.

But then the doctor became the patient as she found a lump in her breast in 2006. At age 26 and halfway through her molecular virology doctorate, Chisa was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I didn’t think it was serious,” she said. “I was 26, I didn’t have a family history. I was busy in the lab, busy with publications.”

Cancer, however, has no regard for one’s schedule, plans, hopes, or dreams. Chisa learned this first-hand. After her diagnosis, Chisa’s professors suggested she put her studies on the back burner while she faced chemo, surgery, and radiation. But Chisa said no. She was determined to make sure cancer didn’t steal everything from her. She remained resolute in her goal of finishing school, and her attitude is inspiring. She said, “I didn’t want a pity party, I just wanted to be like everyone else and take care of my business. People go through more challenging things in life. I had hope to get well, good resources, good physician tools. Some people are worse — without anything — and they just keep going.”

Instead of feeling sorry for herself or asking “why me?” Chisa not only pushed through the endless parade of problems one confronts with a cancer diagnosis, she refocused her goal. After enduring endless doctor’s appointment, multiple body scans and medical tests, chemo brain, recovery from surgery, and fatigue from radiation, Chisa decided to get out of the lab and fight cancer from the front lines as a radiation oncologist. So after 4 years of med school, she will take on another 5 years of training to help others on this wretched cancer “journey.”

Being a young breast cancer survivor filled Chisa with “more of a sense of urgency” in pursuing her goals. “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. There is no time to complain or make excuses. Like everyone who goes through difficult times, you gain more strength, a sense that you can accomplish anything you want to do.”

With 2-year-old twin daughters at home and a lot of schoolwork ahead of her, Chisa is proving that she can indeed do anything she wants to do. What an inspiration.


The best photo

I posted tons of photos in yesterday’s post from the Race for the Cure. Many of them were touching, some were funny, a bunch of them were moving, and a few were even tear-inducing. My head is still full of the sights & sounds of the event, and frankly I didn’t expect it to affect me as deeply as it did. I’m still processing the swirling emotions involved in participating in the race as a survivor. Maybe I will sort these feelings out, and maybe I won’t.

One photo I did not post, however, demands to be seen. It was in the Houston paper this morning, and my race buddy texted it to me before I saw it myself. I’ve been thinking about it all day — through 5 sets of tennis & beers at the club, during my shower, while I started laundry, and as I absent-mindedly helped Macy with her career day project for school, then some more as I scrolled through the Chronicle’s online photo gallery of yesterday’s race.

So without further ado, here it is — the best photo from the 2011 Houston Race for the Cure. Photographer Mayra Beltran outdid herself with this shot. 


Feast

feasthouston.com

A culinary adventure was had by a fearless foursome from the ‘burbs. We ventured out of The Bubble down to the Montrose area of H-town, where tattoo parlors and antique shops compete with clothing resale boutiques and enough restaurants to fulfill date nights for months. Walking from our car we passed by BJ Oldies Antiques, and I was taken with the herd of colorful, metal, winged pigs. 

Because the herd was congregated so close to Westheimer, a busy main road, I didn’t get a very good shot but suffice to say the pig-loving girl in my house needs one of these. She wants a green one, so now the only question is big or small?

I may have to bring home a weenie dog for myself. I’ve always wanted a weenie dog. Instead I got a weasel dog.

Charming as they were, we didn’t leave The Bubble to shop for yard art. We had a reservation at Feast Rustic European Fare. Fans of The Travel Channel’s “Man vs Food” show would love this restaurant. Not because of the huge portions but because of the utter strangeness of it.

Feast is a crazy experience. It’s been described by foodies, critics, and restaurant writers in glowing terms. Allison Cook, food critic for The Houston Chronicle said Feast is “less like eating at a restaurant than going to the home of a friend who was an inspired cook. And who happens to live on a farm.” The New York Times said that Feast has “no real peer in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities that pride themselves on their epicurean adventurousness.” The Food Network’s “Outrageous Food” has filmed an episode at Feast. I can certainly see why.

It’s a vegetarian’s nightmare, by the way.

horseworldexpo.com

I survived the meal, and enjoyed what I ate, but was afraid to peruse the menu too intently, and I needed horse blinders to avoid seeing the carnage on other diners’ plates. The chalkboard touting the evening’s specials listed Rabbit Skeleton. For real. As in, something people would willingly order and eat.

Gross.

I will say this for Feast: they really care about the animals they serve up for people to devour. From the Feast website:

“We do not use ANY meat or meat product from factory farmed, intensively raised animals in our restaurant. A full list of exactly where your dinner is coming from is posted on the website and on the back of the menu.”

So on any given night at Feast, you know where everything comes from. It looks like this: Today Your Meal Came From: Sebastien Bonneau, Countryside Farms, Cedar Creek, TX Ducks, Rabbits, Guinea Fowl, Oxtail, Bones, Livers, Fat; Henry Bryan, Bryan Farms, Brenham, TX Chickens: Glen and Honi Boudreau, Jolie Vue Farms, Brenham, TXTongues, Heads, Livers, Kidneys etc; Allen Harrison, Harrison Hog Farms, Beasley, TX Pigs; Dustin Hoeinghaus, Weimar, TX Eggs; Niman Ranch Bellies, Shanks, Cheeks, Bacon, Lard. That Feast has this quote from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma says a lot about the restaurant’s attitude toward animals as food: 

“The industrialization-and brutalization–of animals in America is a relatively new phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat.  Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent we would not long continue to raise, kill and eat animals the way we do. Tail-docking and sow crates and beak-clipping would disappear overnight – for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We’d probably eat less of it too, but maybe when we did eat animals, we’d eat them with the consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve.”
The menu changes daily, and instead of a laminated booklet it’s a piece of paper. Mine had some grease stains on it, and I soon learned why.  There is some weird stuff on that menu. And Trevor ordered two of the weirder items: Warm Fat on Toast as a starter (yes, that is for real), and Bath Chaps. More on that in a sec.
The menu changes daily, and instead of a laminated booklet it’s a piece of paper. Mine had some grease stains on it, and I soon learned why.  There is some weird stuff on that menu. And Trevor ordered two of the weirder items: Warm Fat on Toast as a starter (yes, that is for real), and Bath Chaps. More on that in a sec.
Our waitress, Jody, began her spiel about the evening specials, both of which involved rabbit, and I literally plugged my ears. Unfortunately, the man at the table next to us ordered the Rabbit Skeleton, hence the need for horse blinders. 
Clever marketers that they are, Feast does have some non-meat options, in which I gratefully found refuge. 

The Feta Parcel was amazing: a rectangle of salty, briny feta doused in herbs and a mysterious yet delicious liquid, wrapped in foil then baked to almost-creamy proportion, served on ultra-crispy thick toast. That, along with the champagne cocktail and house bread, could make a mighty fine meal for me. However, there was more to come, as we shared each other’s starters. Well, I shared the ones that were safe for a non-meat-eater, which meant Jill’s Mulligatawny Soup. One word: yum. I gave Keith’s Black Pudding, Peas, Mint and a Fried Egg a miss, along with Trevor’s Warm Fat on Toast. Luckily, no one at our table ordered the Deviled Chicken Bones. While repulsed, I am curious about whether people actually eat the bones. I have a vision of a dog getting into the trash and horking up a shard of chicken bone that’s lodged in his throat.

Nice.

I expected the Warm Fat on Toast to be like butter or lard, but it was cubed and slightly chunky. I neither tasted nor smelled it. One glance was enough for me. Trevor, however, was much more fond of this dish than I.

We were all intrigued by the Anchovies with Clotted Cream on Toast (lots of toast being served at Feast). After Jody hyped this dish, we capitulated and were rewarded with a crostini of sorts with a thick layer of clotted cream and a single, whole anchovy atop its lush bed. Perfect combination of salty, crunchy, and creamy.

On to the entrees! Mine was the Panade of Mushrooms, Fennel and Leeks. I read a lot about food, and yet was unfamiliar with the term “panade.” Always glad to learn something new, and dangerously close to not finding an entree because of my fear of looking too closely at the menu, I was happy that Jody recommended this dish. It’s a big bowl of mushrooms, fennel, and leeks, as promised, bathed in a thin yet substantial sauce with melted and broiled cheese on top. The whole bowl goes in the oven and it was super hot. Yummy, but heavy. I’m used to my vegetarian fare being a little lighter. Most of the panade remained in the bowl.

Jill shared a bite of her whole Amberjack cooked in paper, which was delicious. I’m glad she gave me a tidy bite and I didn’t have to deal with the bones. Enough with the skeletons.

And then there was the Bath Chaps with Garlic Rutabaga and Swiss Chard. Trevor and Keith both chose this entree, and neither one finished. In fact, they could have easily shared one and still been thrown into a Fat Coma. 

I’ve lived all of my almost-42 years without ever coming across bath chaps. It’s basically the lower cheeks and jowl of a long-jawed pig that is cured like bacon. This dish also had something to do with the pig’s tongue as well, although I tried to avoid taking in those details. Of the pork cheeks, it’s been said that “It’s as if the best carnitas and the best pork belly got married and had a baby,” and as much as I like babies, I avoided this one like the plague.

The amount of animal fat in this dish must have been staggering, because Trevor and Keith are both consummate carnivores, and both left copious amounts of cheek, jowl, and tongue in their bowls. While apparently very flavorful, it’s also very filling, and I shuddered to think at the effect on one’s digestive system. In fact, I predicted that such a meal would make one *%$# one’s brains out. Trevor was so stuffed he couldn’t even fit in an after-dinner drink at Anvil, the hipster bar we stopped into and had to seek refreshment from a bottle of Pelligrino. Even then, he woke up feeling hung over, but not from booze. The Fat Coma has lingering effects.

No one needed a single thing beyond the dregs of the French red blend we were drinking, but we ordered a Sticky Toffee Pudding with Clotted Cream and 4 forks, because we figured a visit to Feast wouldn’t be complete without a thorough stuffing of one’s gut. The few bites I had were swoon-inducing: buttery, brown-sugary, moist, and magical.

bbcgoodfood.com

Feast was not only a feast but also an adventure. The fearless foursome all agreed it was worth leaving The Bubble to experience this crazy place.


                                                                          

                          



Extra! Extra!

The front page of the Houston Chronicle today has an article entitled “Infections Top Safety Issues for Hospitals.”

For hospitals?? What about for patients??

I admit, before I became a statistic and contracted a nosocomial infection, I didn’t think much about it, and I would have to say that infections were not the top safety issue for me. Now, of course, I am a statistic, and I’m not very happy about it. Well, I learned a new word (nosocomial,) which usually makes me happy, but this time, not so much. In fact, not at all. I could have happily lived the rest of my life never hearing that word, much less learning about it so intimately.

The article in today’s paper got my attention, for sure, and I half expected to read a story similar to my own, but instead it’s about systemic vascular infections among Medicare patients. The article itself didn’t enlighten me much, and it never said specifically what kind of infections we’re talking about. Not a single mention of staph or mycobacterium to be found.

Sadly, I’m quite well-versed in those two topics.

The article did say that out of 46 hospitals in a 50-mile radius of Houston, half of them reported that Medicare patients under their care contracted infections. Some 472 “hospital-acquired conditions” were reported among 234,000 Medicare patients from October 2008 to June 2010.

I love how the infections are downgraded to “conditions” in print. I can tell you with 100 percent clarity that my hospital-acquired infection was not a condition. It was hell, and it became all-out war.

the-leaky-cauldron.org

Even though I eventually emerged the victor, like most warriors, I will live in the shadow of that victory forever. I don’t know that I will ever feel completely at ease about the infection. I suspect the fear of infection will always be in the back of my mind. Like Harry Potter looking over his shoulder for “He Who Shall Not Be Named,” I will carry this monkey on my back for all of time.

It’s been a while since I have had the recurring dream in which my chest splits open and fluid is pouring out. Maybe that means I’m healing, mentally. In January I wrote about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and how it’s not just for people in the military.

At that time, I was 5 months out from my last hospitalization for the post-mastectomy infection, and it was still alarmingly fresh in my mind. Today, I’m even farther out from that last hospital stay, and hope to continue putting distance between myself and that date. 8 months and counting….

I don’t freak out on a daily basis anymore, and having a reconstructed chest instead of a battle-scarred sunken stretch of mangled skin helps. A lot. To the untrained eye, I look like a normal suburbanite going about her daily business. I’m pretty much recovered from The Big Dig, other than some lingering soreness in my belly incision and the annoying fatigue that I can’t seem to shake. The reconstruction, like the cancer, was a piece of cake compared to fighting the hospital-acquired “condition.”

That “condition” and I go round and round, and even though I was the winner in our balls-out battle this past summer, it will always have a hold on me. The 256 days of oral antibiotics are case in point.

256 days.

Twice a day.

Every day.

256 days. With no end in sight.

The other day, I did something I haven’t done in all that time: I missed a dose.

This is huge for me. I’m a bit OCD when it comes to taking my meds, and I’ve been ridiculoulsy proud of the fact that after all this time, I’ve stayed on course and haven’t had to take a break, to nurse an upset stomach or to quell a GI disturbance. I’ve only barfed a couple of times, and it was because I didn’t eat enough to lay down a good base for those antibiotics.

But lately it hasn’t mattered what I eat, I always feel barfy. Once the simple carbs like crackers & pretzels failed to rid me of the ever-present nausea, I gave in and took the Zofran. The nausea was gone, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Clearly this would not be a daytime solution. Once I’d exhausted the simple carbs and Zofran plan, I resorted to alcohol. And lots of it. I figured, if I was gonna feel that bad, I might as well have a good buzz.

Not such a good plan.

I’m really glad I never read the 2001 study on vascular infections authored by Dr CA Mestress of Barcelona. In it he says that vascular infections are “dreadful surgical entities that are usually accompanied by a high morbidity and mortality.” Yikes. I’m really glad I didn’t know that until now. Dr Mestress goes on to say that these infections “require immediate diagnosis and aggressive treatment.”

The recent study on Medicare patients found in the Chronicle today quotes Donald McLeod, spokesperson for the US Department of Health & Human Services as saying, “We wanted to bring transparency to the fact that patients are exposed to potentially unsafe occurrences at America’s hospitals.” He goes on to say he hopes that the recent study will “spur hospitals to work with care providers to reduce or eliminate these hospital-acquired conditions from happening again to even a single patient.”

There’s that word again: condition.  That’s gonna bug me.

It seems the recent study focused on vascular infections contracted via catheters, so who knows how many other hospital-acquired “conditions” are unclassified. Instead of giving me the details I want, the article devoted itself to discussing other hospital-acquired “conditions” such as bed sores, falls, mismatched blood types, and surgical objects accidentally left in the body after surgery.

Ok, so none of those things happened to me, and for that, I am grateful. Wonder if Harry Potter can whip me up a cure for the all-day nausea?


Front-page news

An article on the front page of the Houston Chronicle today says that big changes are in store for the breast surgery required for cancer treatment. A new study from our own local attraction, M.D. Anderson, found that women with early stage breast cancer don’t need to have their lymph nodes removed, even if the nodes are cancerous.

This is big news. Breast surgeons are calling it “practice-changing” and proof of the old adage that “less is more.” Dr Kelly Hunt, surgery professor at Anderson, says, “The study shows that we don’t have to take out huge swaths of tissue, that we can avoid aggressive surgery without any effect on outcome.” Personally, I’m a fan of anything that avoids removing huge swaths of tissue. Ick. Ugh. Yuck. Been there, done that. More than once.

This new study pokes holes in the century-old belief that a surgeon’s job was to cut out every bit of the cancer, and found that removing the lymph nodes didn’t give women any benefit over radiation and drug therapy alone. The prevailing science has been that removing lymph nodes helps prevent the cancer from spreading and/or recurring.

Removing the lymph nodes from the armpit area is a hot mess waiting to happen. You’ve got the cosmetic issue of ending up with a concaved surface. You’ve got the potential for infection (ahem). You’ve got the risk of lymphedema, which is painful swelling in the arm that cannot be cured. Anyone who has ever seen a photo of a limb swollen to multiple times its normal size because of lymphedema knows to fear this condition. I’ve met several breast cancer survivors on the tennis court since I returned to the game post-mastectomy and post-infection, and more than one of them played with a compression sleeve (a form-fitting garment that goes from wrist to shoulder) to stave off lymphedema. Tammy, my dear lymphedema specialist, made me take one of those bloody things home to keep in my drawer, “just in case,” because the really stinky thing about lymphedema — aside from the fact that there’s no cure — is that it can come on at any time. Women have gotten it years after a mastectomy, with no prior symptoms.

If you want all the nitty-gritty details of the study, you can read the New York Times article, which goes into a little more detail than the Chronicle’s story. The Chronicle does get credit for providing more info about Anderson’s role in the study. We like to root for the local team. Seems 100 of the 891 patients in this study were from Anderson, and the researchers originally planned to expand the study to include 1,900 women, but shut down the study before that happened because the results were so overwhelmingly conclusive.

I like overwhelmingly conclusive results. You don’t find a lot of them in medicine. I’ve learned that the hard way in my “cancer journey.” I’m a black & white, just-the-facts-ma’am kind of girl, and I found myself smacking my head against a wall more than once in pursuit of a concrete, yes-or-no type answer. In medicine, precious few of those exist. I suspect that’s why it’s referred to as “practicing” medicine.

In fact, Dr Grimes, my infectious disease doctor, has spoken of practicing the art of medicine as much as the science of medicine. I really like the way that sounds, as if it’s so very civilized and full of aesthetic value. In reality, it’s a balancing act of drug therapy vs side effects; of benefit vs cost; of how far can we push the body yet still maintain the integral strength necessary to fight the disease.

In other words, there is no overwhelmingly conclusive answer. And sometimes the doctors don’t know themselves what the right answer is. That’s why it’s so nice when a study comes along that says, yes, for sure this is the right thing to do.

I’m super happy about this big news. I hope it lives up to its potential to make life easier for the 200,000 women a year diagnosed with this breast cancer. And I really hope that it’s just a teaser of what big breakthroughs in breast cancer research are yet to come.