Transplant Survivor: Don't Let Disease Define You
By EMILY GUEVARA
The challenging road of medical treatment and genetic considerations for breast cancers patients were among the topics discussed during the Breast Cancer Community Forum on Friday.
The forum, which was free and open to the public, was the first part of the Tyler Breast Cancer Conference an event sponsored by Texas Oncology-Tyler and Baylor Health Care System in Dallas.
Dr. Neil L. Spector, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University, shared about his health journey and surviving a heart transplant.
Spector was a seemingly healthy man. He had run marathons, had no family history of heart health problems, no substance abuse and never smoked.
But in the early 1990s he started having heart palpitations and other strange symptoms. Through many doctor visits, tests and misdiagnoses he lived somewhat of a rollercoaster existence healthwise for several years.
In 1997, he started waking up in the middle of the night with exploding headaches and he would see bright flashes of white light. His heart rate was between 30 and 35 beats a minute and he had lost 15 to 20 pounds on his already slight frame.
A doctor's visit proved the worst. He had a complete heart block.
"That must be somebody else's EKG," he said he thought at the time. "That's not mine."
The doctor told him that the intense headaches and flashes of light were indicative of the six-second pauses between every heart beat.
In June 1997, he had a pacemaker installed and started returning to his more active exercise regimen. That same year, he also was diagnosed with Lyme disease. But more than a year later, his doctor told him his heart function was at 10 percent.
Spector said he believes exercise had helped him stay alive as long as he did with such poor heart function. He said despite his condition, he hadn't been feeling all that bad. He said he lived life to the fullest.
"I wasn't going to fall trap to, 'Poor me, why me,'" he said. "I'm not a victim."
He encouraged the attendees to not let a medical illness define them. He said it's important to have a person in your life who is rational and can help neutralize the doubt and anxiety that inevitably will arise.
And he told them to pray and pay attention to the miracles that happen around them every day.
"The power of (prayer) is real and powerful," one of his slides read. He also said people must trust their gut instincts when it comes to their health.
"Be your own advocate," he said. "No one knows yourself better than you."
Dr. Joanne L. Blum spoke about genetic considerations for breast cancer patients. Dr. Blum is the director of the Hereditary Cancer Risk Program and is research site leader at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
Dr. Blum said most breast cancer is not inherited. Family history is associated with up to 20 percent of breast cancer cases, she said. There are two genes named BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 that are tumor suppressor genes.
When these genes mutate they can't properly repair damaged DNA as they should. In addition, cells can start accumulating. Mutation of these genes has been linked to the development of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute website.
Dr. Blum talked about some of the cancer risks associated with inheriting this gene and the opportunities available for testing for it.
She said benefits for testing a person include knowing why they might have cancer, allowing for customized cancer prevention/detection, and identifying family members who may be at risk.
Some of the negatives would include possible guilt or anxiety, inability to prevent the disease, and cost, among other factors.
She said there are several medical management techniques that can help people to prevent the onset of cancer or detect it early.
"This is really powerful, so women can take control of the fact that they inherited this," she said.
Dr. Sasha Vukelja, a Tyler oncologist who started this event 15 years ago, said it is designed to empower people, especially those affected by cancer so they can make the right decisions for themselves and understand more about their family risk factors.
She said it is part educational and part inspirational.
"You have to empower the patient because when you empower them, they deal with the cancer differently," she said.
Bonnie Scott and Ruby Crabtree were two people who attended the event. The friends are breast cancer survivors and were Dr. Vukelja's patients.
Ms. Scott said it was her third time to come to the conference and she wanted to learn about any new information related to cancer.
Ms. Crabtree attended for the second time and said she wanted to learn about better ways to prevent cancer.
The conference continues today with a session for physicians, surgeons and other medical professionals.