A cancer story – it is Survivor’s Week at MDA


This week is “Survivor’s Week” at MD Anderson. When MDA social media asked if they could hang a banner of Rick on their skybridge, I immediately said, “yes.” There are lots of smiling faces hanging from banners there this week. Yesterday, I had to see Rick’s banner in person to see if it was real. He is located about halfway down the skybridge. Little did social media know the significance of the request and our connection with the skybridge.

Katie, our number one daughter who works at the Houston Zoo, met me for lunch to celebrate at the Rotary House restaurant. I wanted to introduce her to a spot her dad and I have hung out at for a good meal during our many MDA visits.

Many of our family members have been so helpful and supportive through this journey. But Katie has been my rock, actually more like a boulder, for so much of the journey from initial appointments, to surgery day, spending the night with her dad in the hospital, and walking last year’s MDA Boot Walk. Unfortunately, cancer affects not just the patient but family members, friends and co-workers. Rick has been blessed with support from too many to count.

It was over two years ago Rick was diagnosed with Stage IV Kidney Cancer at MDA. There have been plenty of opportunities for us to travel across their skybridge, which connects their main building with the buildings across the street. We spend most of our time at the May’s Clinic but frequent the Main Building for testing and other doctor visits. I can’t recall the exact number of steps over the skybridge, but it is quite a hike.

In the beginning of his cancer journey, I pushed Rick in one of MDA’s many available wheelchairs across the skybridge. After he was accepted into an immunotherapy clinical trial, Rick started receiving immunotherapy infusions. I think it was after the third infusion about six weeks later, we rode the oversized golf cart from one side to the other. Rick walked the rest of the way holding onto my arm to testing appointments. Did you know MDA provides golf cart rides back and forth over the skybridge all day long to those that can’t walk it?

Fast forward a tad. It wasn’t long until we were actually walking it together … slowly at first. Then last year, about this very time, we noticed the banners on the skybridge.

“You know … someday your picture is going to be hanging up there don’t you?” I said.

I like to think Rick, and all the others hanging out on the skybridge this week, are there to put a face on cancer and that cures are indeed possible.

A cancer journey – new scan results!


Last week Rick had his three-month scan extravaganza. It seems like years (it has only been 20 months) since I wheeled a very sick husband through MDA’s automatic doors. It is probably why before backing out of the driveway, I asked Rick if he still remembered his patient number. The seven-digit number is asked multiple times by MDA personnel before testing. Yep, like our social security numbers, these digits are forever embeded in both our brains.

Rick just completed six months of observation without any medication. Previously, he had a couple of different types chemo pills which were a disaster. And before that months of immunotherapy. Testing and results this time around were going to be a very big deal.

So on Friday there was a bone scan, bloodwork (I lovingly call “bloodletting”), CT and a mega-MRI scans. I highly recommend having scans on Friday. Everything went so smoothly, in about 6 a.m. and out by 4 p.m. That was probably the shortest scan day in our history. We were both pinching ourselves. We even had time to catch a quick bite to eat at the Rotary House’s restaurant between the CT and MRI scan.

And today we received Rick’s stunning scan results from our favorite oncologist, Dr. Campbell. All the scans are the same as three months ago … stable. His lipase was even normal. Thank you Jesus and MD Anderson. We talked a lot about the trial he had been on. The reflection was good for our soul. This immunotherapy stuff has only been around seriously since 2012. I think it all started with treating Melonoma patients. Rick started on his Immunotherapy Trial for Clear Cell Kidney Cancer in early 2016. Since then, his trial has expanded from 60 patients to 105. That is because patients were doing so well. Rick’s combination of two drugs have a 58% positive response rate. The one drug has a 42% positive response rate. Dr. Campbell indicated they will have all their slots full on the trial by the end of the year for the 105 patients. These positive results bode well for future Clear Cell Kidney Cancer patients.

Dr. Campbell told us that they are expanding the types of cancers that receive immunotherapy ALL THE TIME. There are also new drugs being developed ALL THE TIME. He also said they have learned that some of the old drugs may not hold cancer at bay forever. Some of the drugs are doing very well. The good news is that patients, like Rick, who respond well to immunotherapy have a great chance that if cancer does return there will be lots more new treatment options to chose from.

We go back for scans in three months. If that visit is stable … four month scans.

A cancer journey – scan results revealed


Time for my monthly update on how Rick is fighting stage IV kidney cancer. For so many months, we both have felt like we’ve been in the middle of a boxing ring fighting the good fight. Like Rocky Balboa, Rick has been right smack in the middle of the prize fight for his life with a huge guy throwing gut punches. I’m the one, between rounds, throwing water on him, squirting water in his mouth, and asking him to spit. I like to think I am way cuter than Burgess Meredith, who played his trainer!

This past Friday, Rick had a variety of scans. It was part of our “every two month” check-the-dude-inside-and-out during his “active surveillance” status. We have come to the point of just watching the remnants of little spots of cancer. This has created anxiety for me. Rick … he has moved on down the road of cancer. I don’t know how he does that.

So I decided we both needed a little break … maybe me more than him … so instead of heading home on Friday, Mimi stayed at the respite house, and Lulu reluctantly was boarded. I booked a room at the Hotel ZaZa down the street from the medical center. First time for us and what a cool place. They have a free shuttle that will drop off and pick up within five miles of the hotel, including the medical center. When I booked the room, I mentioned something about spending the day at MDA for testing and was offered a “medical rate.” It was very generous! Upon check-in, we were also upgraded to a suite. We had a lovely dinner that night and breakfast the next morning in their Monarch Restaurant. I recommend the Blackberry Margarita on the rocks, no salt. This was totally what we needed. One night of relaxation … in a cool atmosphere! I could write a whole post on this place.

Fast forward to yesterday. Rick had his last scan … a brain scan. It was a test they couldn’t do on Friday. Rick continues to wonder why he has to have a brain scan. He will be the first to admit, “there isn’t anything up there,” although I know differently. At lunchtime, we met with Dr. Campbell, Rick’s oncologist, that has been calling the shots since we started early last year.

In a peanut shell, he told us no cancer in the brain. CT and MRI scans show all cancer is stable. Essentially, what spots are left are either dead or the same size. The drugs from the immunotherapy clinical trial Rick was kicked off in January is probably still working and may continue for a very long time. One of the symptoms of the infusion drug continuing to work is itching, from the inside, and that is still happening.

Then Dr. Campbell dropped the big news. We will now be having scans every three MONTHS and seeing him every 3 MONTHS. Although Rick is still considered in treatment, we feel like we won the fifth round of a 10 round championship fight. God is good … all the time!

A cancer journey … promises and second infusion


Last year when Kate, our lovely daughter-in-law, was going through RCIA studying to become a Catholic, my husband made her a promise. He would be there with her at the Easter Vigil in Washington, DC when she officially became Catholic. A few weeks later we paid for plane tickets. I even did something I’ve NEVER done before … paid for four days of hotel on hotels.com. Oh yeah … we were going to be there … or be square!

Shortly after, Rick got the kidney cancer diagnosis and it didn’t look like that promise was going to be kept. I knew Kate would understand but Rick and I were both really upset. We had quietly prayed for over four years that Kate’s faith journey would lead her in the direction of the Catholic Church and now it was going to really happen.

Dr. Campbell told us it was possible Rick would feel better after his first immunotherapy infusion. Maybe even well enough for the trip. Not sure I believed him. But we clung to the possibility. Except the first infusion was delayed five times and time was getting short. Every time I spoke with our son, Ricky, on the phone I would tell him to be prepared that we might not come. Personally, I really didn’t think it was even possible considering how bad Rick felt. We were to leave on Thursday, March 24. That Monday before, we were still going back and forth on whether we should go. On Tuesday, my hubby said, “We are going.” He was a little better … but wouldn’t be running sprints in the airport.

The trip was way more fun for me than for my husband. It was the first time in months that I had sat in a restaurant and held an adult beverage in one hand … especially one so darn cute with lots of fruity stuff poking out the top. After the first three sips, I was calling my Sangria … Sagria. It was a magical night!

We had to majorly slow things down for Rick. He took lots of naps during the day. I also rolled him through the airport in a wheelchair. Rick barely managed to get through the three hours passion service on Good Friday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. I don’t know how he did it. Well, it wouldn’t have happened without our son dropping us at the curb. On Saturday, Rick did have to miss the four-hour Easter Vigil. It wasn’t going to be over until 11:30 p.m. and I insisted on him hanging out at the hotel. Kate’s awesome mom recorded the big event on video for Rick to view later.

The day after we got back from our trip, we meet with Dr. Campbell right before Rick’s second infusion. The lump on Rick’s chest had turned from hard to soft and flattened out. Imagine going from a “D” cup to a “B” in two weeks. He is getting some of his stamina back and his blood levels look great. His doctor told us Rick’s improvement was “dramatic.” I love that word “dramatic.”

The second infusion went smoother than the first. Not much in the way of side effects. No MDA appointments for two weeks. We’ve got some home projects that need attention and I finally dropped off our income taxes.

This week I learned … it is lovely when you run into people you know at MDA like the amazing Ev and Joan Evans … oh and my daughter, Katie, is extra awesome. She drove her dad home from MDA when the infusion lasted longer than expected and I had to get back home for Mimi’s drop off by the day center bus. She is my hero! I also learned how much pleasure I get out of just getting the sheets washed when I realize I don’t have to be at MDA the rest of the week! I learned the simple pleasures of walking among the cherry blossoms with people that I love like Aleta, Sarah and Kate. I learned how much of an awesome adult my son, Ricky, has become. He took such great care of his dad and me on our visit. I got a little emotional when he dropped us at the airport. I also learned the priceless value of a kept promise.

A cancer journey – after the first infusion

Infusion drugs!
Rick had his first infusion last week. That moment when the first drug started dripping was very emotional for both of us. We had experienced so many lows with weeks of diagnostic testing and each day I watched as Rick got weaker and weaker. Every time I pulled my car into MDA’s valet parking, I asked, “Do you need a wheelchair today?” I hoped he would say, “No … I can do this.” But four out of five times, he said, “Yes.”

Now as I watched the immunotherapy drug go drip, drip, drip, I teared up. And I also noticed the relief on Rick’s face. Anxiety lifted replaced with a kind of euphoria. This was real.

Five hours later when we were about to leave, the nurse whispered something into Rick’s ear. I found out later she told him the next three days would be hard. She was right. Rick ached all over, was incredibly fatigued, and nauseous. I made lots of runs to Smoothie King. Each day after that was a little better.

The following Monday, six days after the infusion, Rick is taking out the trash and feeding the dog. And now we are weaning him off the mega-meds. Wish me luck!

This week I learned … Smoothie King soothes a sour tummy … we can do this without a wheelchair … our immediate and extended family, parish and Shell family are so awesome in many ways … our stack of get well cards, as well as Masses said for Rick is approaching three inches thick.

A cancer journey … first infusion!

Yesterday was a huge day for Rick at MD Anderson. We had our bag packed with prayer quilt from Martha’s Quilters, assorted snacks and our smiles! After twenty-two tests, meetings with doctors or staff over several weeks, we finally qualified for a promising clinical trial. On Monday, they randomized the three drug choices Rick would receive. We got the immunotherapy drug Nivolumab and Bevacizumab, which stops the growth of new blood vessels that provide nutrition for cancer cells. Just don’t ask me how to actually pronounce the name of drugs.

So I learned immunotherapy works with the immune system to treat cancer. Rick’s kidney oncologist explained that these drugs turn his T-cells into supermen and they fight the cancer. He will have a total of three infusions every other week for six weeks to cool the kidney down. Then that darn kidney gets taken out. After that … infusions for a long time.

His first infusion appointment would last five hours and it pretty much did. Rick’s oldest awesome sister, Bonnie, hung out with us in the Peach Suite on the 8th floor, where the infusion happened. We made it a party even though it was serious business. We had the nicest ladies on the planet taking care of Rick.

We get a break from making that trek to the medical center for a couple of weeks to concentrate on getting Rick well! It’s a good thing … gotta catch on my laundry!

Thanks for the cards, prayers and phone calls. We are so blessed.