How to Beat Cancer—Twice

What doctors and their patients should be talking about when it comes to cancer awareness.

How to Beat Cancer—TwiceIda Mae Astute/Getty Images
Just two weeks after completing the New York City marathon, Nebraska teacher and track coach Andrea Kabourek, 32, learned she had breast cancer. Irreverent, tough, and optimistic, she sailed through her double mastectomy and chemotherapy, missing only six days of teaching while she received eight rounds of powerful, cancer-killing drugs.

The chemotherapy was successful, and Kabourek thought she had beaten cancer. She went back to her two loves: teaching and travel. But just about a year later, in 2011, Kabourek found herself winded after running halfway around the track and then walking up a single flight of stairs. This time, she was diagnosed with leukemia, which most likely developed as a “side effect” of her original chemotherapy treatment. “It’s like the small print on the back of the bottle,” says Kabourek, who was stunned by the development.

After more chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Kabourek is back at Lincoln East High School. But she’s disturbed that some of the same drugs that led to her leukemia were deployed again to destroy her bone marrow’s abnormal (along with normal) cells before her transplant.

Kabourek joined the growing ranks of cancer survivors who are confronting second, new malignancies—not a recurrence or spread of their original disease. Sometimes, as with Kabourek, the new cancer is an aftereffect of powerful radiation or chemotherapy treatments. Other times, genetic or familial risks play a role. And sometimes, lifestyle—diet or exposure to toxins—is to blame. The numbers are surging: An astonishing one in six people with a new cancer diagnosis had previously been diagnosed with a different cancer. “If you lump together all second cancers, it’s a very common diagnosis,” says Marie Wood, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Only initial breast, prostate, and lung cancers affect more people.

Second cancers entered the breakfast-table consciousness of millions last June, when Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, a breast cancer survivor, revealed that she now has a form of bone marrow cancer called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). As with about one in five MDS patients, previous chemotherapy and/or radiation likely caused Roberts’s new life-threatening condition (she’d received both types of cancer treatment five years earlier). Roberts is currently recovering after receiving a bone marrow transplant from her sister.

In September, Kathy Bates revealed she had completed breast cancer treatment, nine years after first being treated for ovarian cancer. And Sharon Osbourne, a colon cancer survivor, announced last fall that after testing positive for a breast cancer gene, she had undergone prophylactic mastectomy to avoid developing a new cancer.

Second cancers may be an unavoidable risk of lifesaving cancer treatment. But there are ways for people to minimize that risk. Here’s what doctors should be telling their cancer patients … and what all of us should know about the new front in the war against cancer.

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