Friday, December 23, 2011

Cancer 101- A Basic, General Overview

Cancer is responsible for over 500,000 deaths every year in the United States, second only to heart disease. Many of us in the community have had direct exposure to this disease, either through first hand personal experience or through those shared with close friends or relatives.

The word “cancer” itself can be incredibly scary, but it is important to know that with modern treatments, many patients, especially those whose cancers are caught early, can be cured. In this article, I wanted to briefly talk about cancer and some of the major treatments for it.

Our body’s cells are created and ultimately die as part of a regular cycle of life. Normal functioning of this life cycle is extremely important for our day to day living. For example, when our skin gets cut or scraped, the skin cells will quickly grow to form a scab and heal the damaged area. After this area has finished healing, these cells will stop growing.

Sometimes (for reasons we don’t completely understand), some cells in our body continue to grow unnecessarily. These cells can keep growing and form growths, or tumors. These can stay in one place and continue to grow larger, or they can even spread to other parts of the body.

Many of these tumors can be picked up on screening exams like mammograms, prostate blood tests, or colonoscopies. At this point, a surgeon can go in and take a piece of the tumor (a biopsy) and have the pathologist look at it under the microscope.

If the pathologist feels the tumor is malignant, the patient will undergo further testing to see if the tumor has spread (staging workup). Since cancer comes in many different types, depending on what organ it grows from, there is no one correct way to treat. Each treatment plan should be developed for each individual.

The surgeon will often send the patient to a “chemo doctor” (medical oncologist) and a “radiation doctor” (radiation oncologist) prior to performing any surgery.

Chemo doctors, or medical oncologists, specialize in giving chemotherapy, very strong drugs that are delivered through the veins. These drugs then travel through the blood to the entire body. The goal of chemotherapy is to kill cells that are visible on CT or MRI scans as well as the invisible tiny cells that may have spread to other areas of the body.

Radiation doctors specialize in giving radiation therapy, or very strong x-rays, that are shot into the tumor and surrounding areas to kill the cancer cells. Radiation is generally given only to a small area of the body, and generally does not affect areas outside of where it is given.

These doctors will get together as a team to figure out the best way to treat. Though oncologists do follow national treatment guidelines, we take in to account that each patient is unique, and will adjust our treatments based on things like the patient’s age, physical and emotional condition, and even things like social and family support.

At MD Anderson Sugar Land, our treatment team also includes nurses, dieticians, as well as social workers to make sure that our patients are well taken care of during what is often a very difficult and stressful time in their lives.

After the course of treatment is done, all the physicians will continue to followup with the patients at regular intervals to make sure that they are both recovering well after their treatment, and to make sure that their tumor has not returned.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I Have Cancer: Now What?

I Have Cancer: Now What?

You have just been diagnosed with cancer. You may or may not know where to turn or what to do. Here are a few suggestions to help you take those first steps:

Stay Calm

“Cancer” is such a scary word, that it immediately makes us think of death. However, many cancers that are caught early can be cured if diagnosed and treated properly. Unless your condition is life threatening, it is wise to wait at least 72 hours before making any decisions about your treatment. Use this time to gather more information, inform the people you rely on for support, and prepare yourself mentally for the upcoming treatment.

Get Informed

We tell our patients that they should try to know more about their disease than their general doctor.

First, familiarize yourself with how cancer is diagnosed and treated (see our guide, General Overview of Cancer, on YourCancerFAQS and MyCancerFAQS Facebook pages.)

Second, gather more information about your specific condition. The internet is a great place to start, but please be careful. Some sites can give you very biased or misleading information. Reliable sites that we like are:
  • – this is a site run by the government and gives good, unbiased information.
  • - The university teaching hospital that we work for. An excellent source of introductory information along with videos and links to articles.
“Teaching Hospitals”

We suggest that you receive your treatment at the closest teaching hospital near you. Why? To ensure the best treatment possible, it takes an entire team of knowledgeable doctors who communicate on the same wave length with each other.

Physicians in teaching hospitals routinely present each patient they see at a “tumor board.” A “tumor board “ is where physicians and their colleagues review each case and offer their opinions about the best options to treat a patient. That way, every patient can be sure that their best interests are kept in mind when making a treatment plan.

In addition, teaching hospitals, usually affiliated with a university medical school, also have a host of continuing education lectures and conferences for physicians that occur on a daily basis. They also tend to have a large amount of support services such as nutrition, social work, etc., that are included as a part of the entire cancer treatment package.

Find A Fellowship-Trained Surgeon

It is to your benefit to see a surgeon who has undergone extra years of training to specialize in removing cancers. Here is a link you can visit to see if your surgeon has been fellowship trained:

Check on Board Certification

Check to see if your chemo doctor and radiation doctor (if needed) are board certified. To become a board certified specialist, your doctor needs undergo extra years of specialty training, and then pass a rigorous exam. Visit this link to see if your doctors are board certified:

If you need more information, please send your question(s) to me in an email to or call (832) 377-5729.

Disclaimer:This blog is intended for education purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Please consult with your physician for advice that is specific to you. This blog represents viewpoints that are solely my own, and not of MD Anderson Cancer Center, my employer.