Pollen allergies? Watch Out for Certain Foods

**By Megan Clark**

Colorful cut vegetablesEver wonder why your mouth itches when you eat certain fruits and vegetables?  The simple answer may be that you’re having an allergic reaction, to the proteins in fruits and vegetables related to tree, grass and weed pollen. It’s called Oral Allergy Syndrome and it means that if you have an allergic reaction to plant pollen, you are more than likely to have an allergy to at least one food.

“A subset of people with certain pollen allergies like birch or grass pollen can experience this condition known as oral allergy syndrome or pollen food allergy syndrome,” explains David Jeong, MD, an allergist at Virginia Mason Medical Center.  “The reaction is a contact hive reaction in the mouth and throat from certain fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds that contain pollen-related proteins.”

People who suffer from a pollen food allergy can expect an itchy mouth or throat, tingling, minor swelling of the lips and tongue, and sometimes, a sensation of minor swelling of the back of the throat. One other thing to know about “itchy mouth” syndrome from oral allergies is that the condition is not seasonal, even if symptoms seem worse during the spring. But, the good news is that most oral allergy syndrome symptoms resolve themselves fairly quickly.

“As the foods pass into the stomach, the food proteins get degraded quickly, thereby preventing a prolonged reaction and stopping the reaction in most cases from becoming systemic,” says Dr. Jeong, who recommends oral antihistamines if you want to relieve the symptoms of pollen allergy food syndrome quickly.

So if you have allergies, what should you watch out for?

If you are allergic to Birch tree pollen, be careful when eating apples, peaches, plums, pears, cherries and apricots.  Soybeans, peanuts and hazelnuts can also cause a reaction, along with carrots, celery, parsley and seeds like caraway, fennel, coriander and aniseed.

If Ragweed makes you miserable, watch out for cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, zucchini, cucumbers and bananas.

An allergy to Mugwort can give you an itchy mouth from celery, carrots, parsley, bell peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, garlic, onion and peach. Seeds you might want to avoid include caraway, fennel, coriander, aniseed mustard and black pepper.

If you have trouble with Orchard Grass pollen, be careful eating cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon.

An allergy to Timothy Grass could leave your mouth itchy from consuming Swiss chard or oranges.

Dr. Jeong recommends avoiding consuming culprit foods raw to avoid experiencing an itchy mouth or throat.  But, there’s also another option.

“These foods will usually be well tolerated if well cooked,” suggests Dr. Jeong. “Some may have reactions to certain foods even if they have been cooked, but that is less common.”

Megan Clark is a multimedia storyteller and health content producer based in Seattle. 


Self-Advocacy for Autoimmune Disease Patients: A Conversation with Judi Rising and Tracey Barnes

Judi Rising and her daughter Tracey Barnes know a lot about advocating for people living with autoimmune diseases. Judi is co-founder of the Autoimmune Advocacy Alliance (A3 Alliance) and has spent years educating local and statewide communities about autoimmune diseases. And Tracey, who has lived with multiple sclerosis (MS) for 11 years, often shared her advice on self-advocacy for autoimmune patients as a former

Judi and Tracey

Judi Rising (left) and her daughter, Tracey Barnes

spokesperson for Biogen. Twenty years ago, however, they knew next to nothing about autoimmune diseases.

Judi and Tracey first learned about autoimmune diseases when Tracey’s brother Pat was diagnosed first with Hodgkin’s disease, then with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), a rare autoimmune blood disease. Six weeks after his ITP diagnosis, Pat passed away. “We had heard the words ‘autoimmune disease’ prior to this, but had no details of any kind and of course no understanding of the impact it could have,” Judi says.

After Pat’s death, Judi and her husband Dick knew they had to spread awareness about autoimmune diseases. They founded “Pat’s Fund,” to educate others about autoimmune diseases, which grew into the A3 Alliance with the support of Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason. Tracey’s own journey with MS has taught the entire family about what self-advocacy as an autoimmune patient looks like, as well as how family and friends can support loved ones living with one of these 80+ chronic diseases.

We recently sat down with Judi and Tracey to hear their advice on how to advocate for yourself and others living with autoimmune diseases.

Tracey, what does self-advocacy mean to you as a patient living with an autoimmune disease?  

Tracey: Self-advocacy begins with your attitude and how you look at things —attitude is absolutely everything.

What I’ve discovered is that people who’ve been diagnosed with MS go one of two ways. They either say, ‘My life is over and I’m going to give up right now. I don’t care. I’m angry, and I’m scared.’ Or, they say, ‘Okay. This is something that’s in my life, and I’m going to do the best I can to deal with it and move on.’

If I’m having a bad day, I sit down and say, ‘This is what you have—but look at all your blessings, and look at all you’ve been given in life. Are you going to give into this?’ I do not allow myself to go down the slippery slope of thinking about, for example, the fact that I don’t have any children and don’t know who will take care of me when I’m older. Instead of doing that, I think it’s very important to focus on a few things you know will get you out of the darkness.

Self-advocacy is also a process of asking questions and learning. When you don’t understand something about your disease, your medication, or your symptoms, ask the question again.

What does self-advocacy look like at the doctor’s office?

Tracey: No question is dumb—don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. Don’t think, ‘The doctor is going to think I’m dumb, or I’m going to hurt their feelings.’ This is your life. In terms of anything you don’t understand, which is going to be 90 percent of what the doctor tells you, write it down or ask about it. It is so vitally important. For example, when I was first diagnosed, I was given the option to begin taking one of seven or eight different drugs. I didn’t feel prepared to make a choice, but I did. Little did I know the drug that I should have gone on was one that had a huge risk factor—so I had just dismissed it. If I had chosen that drug, I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in right now [walking with forearm crutches]. If I’d known what I know now, I would’ve said to that nurse, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t know what drug to use. You’ve got to help me.’

Judi: If you have a question that your doctor can’t answer, you can also ask for a referral to a specialist or a system with specialists, like Virginia Mason or the University of Washington. We hear story after story about people who are misdiagnosed, sent to the wrong doctor, or not taken seriously by their primary care physician. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I appreciate everything that you’ve told me, and I’d like to hear from someone else. It’s nothing against you, I just want to hear a second opinion.’ There’s nothing wrong with that.

Tracey: It’s also really important to bring someone with you to your appointments. At one point, I took my mom or my husband to all my appointments because they both had a better understanding of the disease, and I wanted a second set of ears. When you start to feel rushed by the doctor, you need to say, ‘I’m feeling rushed. I don’t understand this. When or who can I talk to for more information?’ It’s so important.

How do you build and leverage support networks?

Judi: With regards to building community, support groups look great on the surface but can be really difficult to keep positive. When people don’t have anyone to share their story with, they see a group of people who understand what they’re going through, and sometimes it turns into a gripe session. You have to have someone in the group who helps keep the session positive.

I’ve seen that oftentimes, friends can be even better supporters than family members. It’s perfectly fine to make your support system your friend. If family doesn’t work for you as a support system, seek a friend because they may be more understanding and supportive than your family will. The breakdown of support within families is common, not uncommon. Sometimes, family wants to pretend that the disease is not there.

Tracey: For example, I have a friend who I can call and say, ‘Will you come down to the house and just let me talk?’ And she does. She’s a great friend.

What would you tell people who have been recently diagnosed?

Tracey: I wish there was a way to communicate to people who are newly diagnosed that there is help out there. You can be very positive and keep going in your life. I don’t think that is as well-known as it should be.

Judi: One of the really scary things for a lot of people when they’re first diagnosed is that they go online and get the message, ‘no cures.’ And unfortunately, in most people’s minds ‘no cures’ equates to incurable.

That really isn’t true, in the sense that most autoimmune diseases today do have treatments that can pretty much stop a disease from progressing. If you get on the right path, they can be stopped. And that isn’t exactly the same as incurable.

There are some internet sites that give good information, like Johns Hopkins Autoimmune Research Center’s website, and the Cleveland Clinic’s website as well as their page on understanding autoimmune diseases. In addition, there are some very good books to read like Living Well with Autoimmune Disease by Mary J. Shomon, and The Autoimmune Epidemic by Donna Jackson Nakazawa.

Most importantly, once a person has a diagnosis and a treatment (if available) they should begin to talk with others who have the same disease to find out how they deal with their issues for a better living experience. It is very important for people living with autoimmune diseases to reach out, share, and discuss their experiences.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Benaroya Research Institute Autoimmune Life Blog.

Meet the Dog Who’s a Weapon Against IBD

Jenn White has a secret weapon for coping with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – A French bulldog-Boston terrier mix, named after a rock legend: Jagger.

Jagger is more than Jenn’s emotional support animal, he’s a kindred spirit who also suffers from IBD.

“I applied to adopt dogs several times for over two years and it wasn’t working out. I was about to give up for a bit…then I came across Jagger and knew I needed him,” she says. “After a conversation with his vet about his digestive issues and diet, I made sure they knew I had similar problems and that he would be in great hands.”

Follow @Jagger_McFrenchie on Instagram

Jenn White and her dog, Jagger, help each other cope with inflammatory bowel disease.

IBD strikes when the immune system attacks the intestines, causing inflammation, abdominal pain and bleeding. As Jagger can testify, these problems are not unique to humans, and they occur at least as frequently in many animals as they do in people.  While many different types of IBD have been described in different animals, in humans it comes in two main forms: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Jagger and Jenn have been fighting IBD together since February of 2015, when she adopted him as a nine-month-old puppy. At the time, Jagger was malnourished and struggling with everything from incontinence to a high white blood cell count. But his route to recovery, though daunting, did not discourage Jenn at all.

“It was so sad to see him in pain,” she says. “But I knew he had tummy issues, and I knew I could handle it.”

Road to Recovery

Jagger’s road to recovery included a probiotic diet and anti-diarrheal medication. Once he felt better, Jenn decided to register him as an emotional support animal. She met with a trainer twice a month for a year, and they motivated Jagger with treats and taught him the commands required for certification: “sit,” “stay,” “lay,” and understanding his name.

“Jagger learned it all and when he needs to go to the bathroom, he knows to wait patiently at my front door,” she says. “The only times he has accidents is when he’s flaring and can’t hold his bowels.”

When Jagger is sick, Jenn draws upon her personal experience of following an IBD-conscious diet. If she notices signs of a flare, like vomiting or blood in his feces, she changes his diet. That may involve adjusting the consistency of his food or having him fast. And she does this all while managing her own, sometimes similar, symptoms.

“I’d say the biggest difference between our IBD experiences would be that Jagger rarely ever has fatigue, and I certainly do,” she says. “He is always ready to play!”

Enduring a Flare

Another key difference between Jenn and Jagger is that her IBD treatment is a lot more complicated. Jenn’s treatment has included several immunotherapy drugs and bowel surgery, and she chooses to follow a gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free diet to try to keep her digestive tract in balance. Her treatment is guided by James Lord, MD, PhD, a Virginia Mason gastroenterologist and BRI principal investigator who leads several IBD studies.

Jenn, who works as an e-commerce buyer for Nordstrom Rack, said Jagger senses when she’s not feeling well – and responds by being gentler and more attentive. During the summer of 2016, Jenn had to take medical leave and was hospitalized four times when she suffered an extreme flare. During the flare, she made bathroom trips over ten times a day – but each time, Jagger waited for her behind the restroom door.

“I was so depressed, but Jagger’s sweet face brought me joy. It forced me to keep a routine and not fall into being unsocial,” she says. “And because I have to take him outside, he keeps me on a schedule, which is super important to managing chronic illness. He gives me someone else to focus on so I don’t spin about in my own struggles. I need him and he needs me need him and he needs me.”

Supporting IBD Patients

Jenn, who is currently in remission, volunteers for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and sits on its Northwest Board of Trustees. She likes to bring pictures of Jagger to Camp Oasis, the Foundation’s summer program for children with IBD.

Jenn says it brightens kids’ spirits when they see a dog who’s just like them, and she also brings Jagger when she visits friends who are hospitalized for IBD.

One of her friends “absolutely lit up when Jagger walked in the hospital room,” she says.

BRI and Virginia Mason are involved in numerous studies to help us understand IBD and explore new treatments. View our currently enrolling studies here, or join the Clinical Research Registry to get connected with study opportunities.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Benaroya Research Institute Autoimmune Life Blog and  fall newsletter. 

Surviving Breast Cancer: Linda’s Story



I’m Linda and I’m 68 years old. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I had my regular mammogram, something didn’t look right. They wanted me to come back for another mammogram and ultrasound. That showed a possible tumor and a biopsy revealed I had cancer. I also had an MRI that gave them a better picture of what was there.

Luckily, it was Stage 1A HER2 positive and I wasn’t in immediate danger. But I felt like everyone at Virginia Mason took it just as seriously as if it had been Stage 4. A meeting was quickly set up for me to talk to an oncologist, radiologist and surgeon. I felt that each one focused on me as a person, on my particular cancer and how it might be treated. They answered all my questions.

I decided to have a lumpectomy and that went well. I had a one-time intraoperative radiation treatment and was only in the hospital overnight. I did have some problems with the follow-up treatment because my wound was proving difficult to heal. It was a couple of months before I was able to receive chemotherapy once a week and had some difficulties with that, but a nurse was always available for me to talk to.

One of the oddest things was that I didn’t like the taste of silverware during my treatment. So I had to eat every meal with plastic utensils. But the good thing was that I didn’t eat as much and lost 55 pounds. I love to cook and bake and I knew I was too heavy.

Today, I am eating much better and I feel better because of it. I have rheumatoid arthritis and I need to stay active, so I exercise by doing water aerobics. My family has been terrific through all of this. When I was in treatment, my sister-in-law would visit every Tuesday. She knew I wouldn’t be feeling well that day because of the chemotherapy and she would bring me things I could eat.


Linda’s daughter Traci

Just recently, my daughter, Traci, was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she found out about it, she knew immediately she wanted to be treated by the same doctors at Virginia Mason who treated me. It was also recommended that she visit Virginia Mason’s genetic counselor — and we went together.

I learned a lot from that visit. When you look at the big picture, you can see how cancer has affected my family through generations. I suppose that’s true for a lot of families, but it was surprising to realize how many of my relatives have had cancer.

I’m so glad that Virginia Mason was there for me and Traci. And in 2005, it was there for my husband, Otis, as well. He had prostate cancer and is doing well today — and so am I. Otis, Traci and I have all had the best care possible. I can’t say enough good things about the people at Virginia Mason who took such good care of us.


This story originally appeared on VirginiaMason.org. Meet other patients who bravely shared their stories of fighting cancer, and get the latest information on cancer treatment outcomes and wellness and support at Virginia Mason.

Lifelong Heart Health Requires Awareness and Action


J. Susie Woo, MD

**By J. Susie Woo, MD**

As a cardiologist, I diagnose and treat heart disease – our country’s leading cause of death – across a broad spectrum of patients. Although the goal is to always individualize treatment based on a person’s unique condition, there are commonalities everyone should be aware of and follow to achieve optimal heart health.

Knowing your risk

Although there are a handful of things everyone can and should do over the course of their lives to lower their risk of heart disease, people’s genetic makeup can place them at higher risk no matter what they do. Since medical science is proving more and more that genetics plays a role in heart disease, one of the most important steps in preventing an event, like a heart attack or stroke, is knowing whether you have a family history of cardiovascular disease.

The most relevant family history is that of your first-degree relatives: your biological parents and siblings. Early heart disease in those family members, or in more distantly related family members, are the most concerning signs of an inherited predisposition toward cardiovascular disease or sudden death.

Here is what your physician wants to know:

  • Is there any family history of heart disease, heart attack or stroke?
  • Is there any family history of high blood pressure, especially at an early age?

Most importantly, is there any history of a heart attack in a male before age 55 or a female before age 65?

Six healthy habits

Beyond knowing your family history of heart disease, people who adhere to six recommended health behaviors are about 80 percent less likely to die from heart attack or stroke than those who follow none of the actions, according to a study that included nearly 45,000 U.S. adults. However, the study also revealed that few adults follow all of these behaviors as recommended by the American Heart Association:

  • Not smoking and limiting consumption of alcohol
  • Having normal cholesterol levels
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Having normal blood glucose
  • Being physically active
  • Having normal blood pressure

Not smoking and limiting consumption of alcohol

If you are one of the estimated 40 million Americans who still smoke, quitting as soon as possible should be your highest priority. Smokers are two to three times more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers, but that increased risk reverses to that of a non-smoker after just three years of abstinence. Your doctor can help provide you with stop-smoking aides and information about local smoking-cessation resources.

A little alcohol can be good for your heart, but after that, the health benefits are lost and it simply results in empty calories. If you choose to drink, physicians recommend an average of no more than one drink – preferably a glass of red wine – a day for women and two drinks per day for men.

Having normal cholesterol levels

Cholesterol levels should be measured at least once every five years in everyone over age 20. More frequent screening is performed in men over age 35 and women over age 45, especially if there is a history of high cholesterol. Cholesterol levels are measured by a blood test called a lipid profile under fasting conditions. The lipid profile includes:

  • Total cholesterol
  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein, also called “bad” cholesterol)
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein, also called “good” cholesterol)
  • Triglycerides (fats carried in the blood from the food we eat). Excess calories, alcohol or sugar in the body are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells throughout the body.

Results of your blood test will come in the form of numbers. It is important to know that the numbers by themselves are not enough to predict your risk of heart disease. They are, instead, one part of a larger equation that includes your age, your blood pressure, your smoking status, and whether you use blood-pressure medications. Your doctor will use this information to calculate your 10-year risk for serious cardiovascular problems. You and your doctor will then develop a strategy for reducing that risk.

High LDL cholesterol leads to atherosclerosis (build-up of cholesterol plaque) on the walls of your arteries and increases your chances of developing angina (chest pain) or heart attack. The lower your LDL cholesterol number, the lower your risk. If your LDL is 190 or more, it is considered very high and your doctor will most likely recommend a statin (medicines that can help lower cholesterol levels), in addition to healthy lifestyle choices.

You may also need to take a statin even if your LDL is below 190. After calculating your 10-year risk, your physician will recommend a percentage by which you should try to lower your LDL through diet, exercise and medication, if necessary.

When it comes to HDL cholesterol, a higher number means lower risk. This is because “good” cholesterol removes the “bad” cholesterol from your blood and keeps it from accumulating in your arteries. A statin can slightly increase your HDL, as can exercise.

Eating a healthy diet

A healthy diet is not only a key component to your heart health, it is instrumental to your overall health. A great place to start is by reducing consumption of foods that come from cows. Other heart-healthy diet changes include:

  • Substitute red meat with proteins such as fish, chicken and soy several times every week
  • Include a combined seven servings of fruits and vegetables in your diet every day
  • Eat foods made from whole grains instead of processed grains
  • Avoid non-nutritious calories and snacks, including packaged foods, fast food and sugary drinks
  • Stop eating when you are no longer hungry, instead of eating until you are full

Having normal blood glucose

Maintaining normal blood glucose levels is important to prevent diabetes and sustain heart health throughout your life. The blood test measuring a fasting blood glucose is often part of an annual physical. The amount of glucose (or “sugar,” measured in mg/dL) in your blood changes throughout the day and night, depending on when and what you have eaten, and whether or not you have exercised. Normal blood glucose levels include:

  • A normal fasting (no food for eight hours) blood sugar level of between 70 and 99 mg/dL
  • A normal blood sugar level two hours after eating of less than 140 mg/dL

Being physically active

Research has shown that people can increase their lifespan by two hours for every hour of exercise. Regular aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to get and stay healthy. Current recommendations are for you to get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least five days a week, both for your heart and overall wellness. To maximize the heart-health benefits of your workouts:

  • Find an aerobic activity you enjoy, such as brisk walking, swimming or cycling. These activities get your heart beating and your big muscles moving
  • Work out at the same time every day so it can more easily become part of your daily routine
  • Exercise enough to break a sweat and increase your heart rate, but keep in mind that you don’t need to be out of breath to benefit
  • If you have not been exercising, start slowly with just 10 minutes of aerobic activity daily, which is still enough to reduce your risk of premature death

Having normal blood pressure

A normal blood pressure is 120 on top (systolic) and 80 on the bottom (diastolic). If your blood-pressure numbers are much higher than that, you should see your doctor and take medications if necessary. High blood pressure significantly increases your risk for a heart attack, stroke, heart failure and kidney failure.

To keep track of your blood pressure, especially if it is high or borderline high, consider purchasing a home blood-pressure monitor. Recording occasional blood-pressure measurements at home, especially after a medication or lifestyle change, is a healthy habit that can help you and your doctor get your numbers under control.

Baby steps

Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that even small, incremental changes in these areas will have a cumulative effect and lower your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. Over time, repetition of these six habits will become routine and lead to a healthier lifestyle and overall sense of wellbeing.

This story originally appeared in the Bellevue Reporter.

J. Susie Woo, MD, FACC, is board certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Disease. Her specialties include echocardiography, nuclear cardiology, advanced heart failure and preventive cardiology. She practices at Virginia Mason Bellevue Medical Center and Virginia Mason Hospital & Seattle Medical Center.

A Heart Back in Rhythm: Dominik’s Story


Dominik Musafia

Prior to his recent experience at Virginia Mason, Dominik Musafia, 47, was “a skeptic of modern medicine.” That’s why it took him a while to see a doctor when he was having health problems.

A divorce attorney, Dominik is used to stress and fatigue from working long hours. But in the summer of 2013, he noticed that he was more than just a little tired. At a July 4th gathering, he was finding it difficult to play Frisbee with friends. His friends insisted he see a doctor, which he reluctantly did.

That physician, a cardiologist, found that Dominik was having premature atrial contractions (PACs), but said that there was absolutely nothing for him to be concerned about. “After stress testing, he told me I had the cardiovascular system of a 27-year-old,” remembers Dominik, who still felt something wasn’t quite right.

About six months later, Dominik’s heart converted into persistent atrial fibrillation or AFib, a condition often characterized by an irregular and rapid heart rate. By itself, AFib is not considered life-threatening. However, if left untreated, it can increase the risk of stroke, heart failure and complications such as blood clots.

“I thought, ‘well, I’ve been to a cardiologist and I’m told I need to live with it,'” says Dominik. “Also, I really didn’t have time to deal with it.” After a while, however, Dominik’s heart health started deteriorating and he was having difficulty doing “ordinary” things like walking up the steps in his house. He took a friend’s advice to see a cardiologist at the Heart Institute at Virginia Mason.

The Virginia Mason cardiologist “knew immediately” that the AFib Dominik was experiencing was serious and did an ultrasound that showed his heart had enlarged and his heart efficiency had substantially decreased. The cardiologist put Dominik on medications to lower and regulate his heart rate and he underwent two “cardioversions” in which he was sedated while attempts were made to shock his heart back into a normal rhythm. Likely due to the length of time he waited to come to Virginia Mason, both were unsuccessful.

Eventually, Dominik underwent cardiac ablation while in AFib. A catheter was inserted through the groin to the heart to eliminate the confused electrical signals within the heart’s atrium that cause atrial fibrillation. His heart converted into regular rhythm during the procedure and after two days, Dominik was walking around normally, and back at work the following Monday. Within four months, he was completely off all medications and his heart continues to stay in rhythm.

I feel as good as ever,” says Dominik, who got married four months after the procedure. He spent his honeymoon in Fiji. When he and his wife went out in a kayak in stormy conditions on a multi-mile trek, Dominik says he relished being outdoors, on the water and embracing life to the fullest extent. “When you’ve had heart problems, you really appreciate a return to normal life, whether you are engaging in ‘extreme activities’ or just walking up a flight of stairs.”

This story originally appeared on VirginiaMason.org. Meet other patients who shared their journey to better heart health, and learn more about the advanced services and dedicated care team at the Heart Institute at Virginia Mason.  


Surviving Prostate Cancer: Bill’s Story

Bill-webMy name is Bill and I am a software engineer. In the fall of 2010, I was sitting on my father’s front porch in Milwaukee when I got the call confirming I had prostate cancer, the same disease that had killed my grandfather and was about to end my father’s life as well.

Because of my family history, for years I had regular prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests. The PSA level is often elevated in men with prostate cancer and in the years just prior to 2010, my numbers were going up. Some doctors adopt a “watch and wait” approach to rising PSA levels when there are no symptoms. But my doctor recommended I see a urologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating prostate cancer. I’m glad he did.

The urologist recommended a new gene-based test called a PCA3 and the results were “positive,” meaning there was a strong likelihood I had prostate cancer. A biopsy was needed for confirmation and during that operation, 17 samples of prostate tissue were removed. Three were found to contain cancer cells. The good news was that my cancer was detected early and confined to one part of my prostate. This meant that with proper treatment, my prognosis was excellent.

Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are all used to treat prostate cancer. After researching my options, I chose to have surgery at Virginia Mason because, as I learned, it’s one of the best places in the country for this type of operation. After I decided on Virginia Mason, I was also accepted into the clinical trial of a new treatment being tested as an adjunct to surgery. In the weeks prior to my operation, I visited Virginia Mason frequently as part of this clinical trial. With every visit, I felt more certain that I was in the best possible hands.

On the day of the surgery, everything went smoothly. My hospital stay and follow-up care were first rate. I actually returned to work after only three days off.

Today, I am considered cancer free. I am back to enjoying hiking, biking and kayaking. And while I continue to be monitored closely, my focus is not on cancer, but on the people I love: my wife and five children/stepchildren.

My life has changed in positive ways. I have more gratitude, more awareness that I want to enjoy the life God has given me, and more urgency to do things today, not tomorrow. I’m grateful for the care I received at Virginia Mason. And to the people who provided that great care, I send my heartfelt thanks.


This story originally appeared on VirginiaMason.org. Meet other patients who bravely shared their stories of fighting cancer, and get the latest information on cancer treatment outcomes and wellness and support at Virginia Mason.

Surviving Renal Cell Cancer: Yaffa’s Story

Yaffa with baby Nesiya

Yaffa with baby Nesiya

My name is Yaffa Grace Penski. I am 45 years old, married and have four children ages 14, 13, 10 and 8 months. I am a career coach, life coach and recruiter. And my husband and I have a small fitness studio on Mercer Island for adults and kids. I love working out with my husband, spending time with my family, hiking, beach vacations, traveling and cooking.

I found out I had cancer Aug. 13, 2013, after a trip to the ER with what I thought was horrible food poisoning. Because I had a fever and abdominal pain, they had to rule out appendicitis and did a CT scan. That’s when they found the mass on my kidney. I was shocked and absolutely terrified. Not what you are expecting to hear when you haven’t had any warning signs. The next day I was totally fine. My kidney cancer was asymptomatic and that’s why I didn’t know there was a problem.

I needed surgery to remove the tumor. This was very risky because the cancer was in my “good” kidney. My other one only functions at 18 percent. If there were complications, I didn’t have a backup.

A friend of my husband urged us to get a second opinion and one of my husband’s clients highly recommended her colleague at Virginia Mason. I did some research and found that there are only two urologists in the Seattle area who are considered experts in the type of surgery I needed. I set up appointments with both, but after my husband and I met with the Virginia Mason urologist, there was no doubt about who I wanted to be my doctor. He took so much time to explain things and we left there at ease with what was going to happen.

Cancer doesn’t just affect your body like a broken bone. It’s an illness that impacts your body, mind and spirit. I felt like my urologist and everyone at Virginia Mason understood the impact not only on me, but also my family. They treated the entire “disease” process, but ultimately the experience felt like a “wellness” process. I felt cared about and I felt my family was cared about, too.

Compared to most cancer treatments, I think mine was relatively simple. Everyone always thinks “chemo” and “radiation” when you hear the “C” word but that wasn’t my experience. After my surgery, I spent five days in the hospital and then recovered at home for about seven weeks. It was painful, but my doctor and everyone else worked hard to address and lessen my pain throughout the stages of recovery.

Getting cancer changed my life in so many ways. For one thing, it seemed to create life — literally. I have 3 children from a previous marriage, but my husband did not have any of his own. We tried for two years to get pregnant and even went through fertility treatments. We were told the likelihood of us getting pregnant was almost zero and we had come to accept that we would not have a child together.

But three months after my cancer was removed, at almost 44 years old, I was pregnant, and now have a beautiful 8-month-old gorgeous daughter. We named her Nesiya, which means miracle of God.

I quit my job that was not fulfilling and started a new career because life’s too short to do something that doesn’t make you happy. I treasure each day and each person in my life. I created a blog, http://www.lifewithasideofcancer.com, when I first got diagnosed as a way to write about the entire experience and get my feelings out and inspire others. I named it “Life with a Side of Cancer” because life is the main course highlighted by a side of cancer, which is secondary. I am completely filled up with gratitude and I know with all my being what is truly important.

Today, there is no “normal.” There is only great. I have been given a second chance to create the life I want and that is my focus. I am so very blessed to be able to make my life happen and so very grateful for all the people at Virginia Mason who took care of me. Thank you!


This story originally appeared on VirginiaMason.org. Meet other patients who bravely shared their stories of fighting cancer, and get the latest information on cancer treatment outcomes and wellness and support at Virginia Mason.

Surviving Pancreatic Cancer: Kris’s story

KrisMy name is Kris and I’m happy to say I turned 63 in April 2015. When I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Jan. 6, 2011, it was a very, very dark day. At that time, I had a teenage son and daughter, two Bichon Frises, a bunny and a wonderful husband I’d been with for 27 years.

I also had two aunts who had died of pancreatic cancer, one that I was particularly close to. I remember very clearly when my primary care physician called to tell me the results of a CAT scan she had ordered. I told her, “Don’t tell me this! This is a death sentence!” I was horrified.

I immediately contacted my sister, a trauma surgeon at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. They say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. At that time, my sister was studying for another board certification. She had just read a paper written by a Virginia Mason oncologist about the team approach to treating pancreatic cancer.

She asked if I was aware of Virginia Mason and I responded that I had been getting my care there for more than 20 years! She urged me to talk with the physician who had written the article she had read because “he totally gets it” — that cancer has to be looked at holistically. His protocol and the Virginia Mason approach, she said, appeared to be quite unique in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

I met this oncologist for the first time in a joint meeting with my surgeon. I loved him right away. He has twinkly eyes, a very honest, straightforward manner and a sense of humor. That trust was confirmed when he came in to my hospital room at 9:30 at night, the day after my surgery. The diagnosis of stage 2 pancreatic cancer had just been confirmed and my husband and I were both having a good cry.

This doctor introduced himself again and then sat down on the foot of my bed. He said, “What information can I give you that will help you sleep tonight?” He then proceeded to patiently answer our zillion questions. But the answer that meant most to me was when my husband asked him, “What do you consider to be your role in this proposed treatment?” He answered, “My role is to be Kris’s spiritual cheerleader. Anyone can write a script for chemotherapy. But if I can help keep her spirit strong, she will win.”

He proceeded to talk about how cancer was perceived to be a battle waged by the human body. But it was also a battle being waged by the human spirit. I knew I had found the right doctor. Oh, I checked out the competition — but it wasn’t even close.

It is still difficult to talk about the one year of adjuvant therapy. I was very sick and the physical toll it took was a mighty one. But I had the best team in the world. All the oncology nurses were the most compassionate, lovely people. They always gave me a boost, helped me to laugh, and worked so hard to alleviate the terrible side effects. This started even before I got to the treatment room, with the wonderful ladies at the front desk on the second floor who checked me in.

But as awful as 2011 was, it was also a year of many blessings. I developed an extraordinarily close relationship with my daughter. I learned to be a gracious recipient of help. I tell my children and everyone who asks, that my survival was not due to some special effort from me.

Rather, it was the prayers, compassion and kindness of a village. From the neighbors who snuck in at night to fill my garden with tulip bulbs, to the “soccer moms” who brought dinner to my family, every night, for months in a row, to my two best friends, who sat with me every day for an entire year, and to my Virginia Mason “team” — I am here because of you.

I saw my daughter graduate and head off to college. I taught my son how to drive (now there is a challenge!) I went back to work full time — something even the Social Security office had a hard time believing. My life has been changed irrevocably. I laugh more. I spend more time with the people I love. My faith has deepened.

I truly believe that Virginia Mason gave me the means to live a full and complete life. Having such a serious illness leaves a shadow. It is always there, flitting around the edges. I don’t dwell on it. I’ve been very fortunate to be invited to work with Virginia Mason to improve the patient experience, through workshops and participating in process improvement sessions.

The dedication I see from the Virginia Mason team is an inspiration. Life after cancer is not “normal.” It’s better than that. Continuing my relationship with Virginia Mason is part of that “better.” Whatever I can do to give back is such a small price to pay for the amazing care I received and continue to receive. Thank you, thank you. As my son would say, “You totally rock!”


This story originally appeared on VirginiaMason.org. Meet other patients who bravely shared their stories of fighting cancer, and get the latest information on cancer treatment outcomes and wellness and support at Virginia Mason.

Surviving Lymphoma: Matthew’s Story

Matthew-webMy name is Matthew. I’m a city manager and I live in Ellensburg, Wash., with my wife and two children. We love doing outdoor things like camping and bike riding and treasure our annual trip to Disneyland. We are all proper Disney nerds!

Two years ago, I found out I had cancer the day before leaving on our annual Disney trip. While lathering my neck for an old-fashioned razor shave, my barber noticed a big rock-hard lump. While she froze in terror, I immediately realized it was probably cancer and would explain the mysterious symptoms I’d been experiencing.

On Valentine’s Day, 2013, a diagnosis of Hodgkins lymphoma was confirmed. I was confused, but not scared at first. I remember thinking that getting treatment as soon as possible would be beneficial.

The first oncologist we visited was not at Virginia Mason and it was an awful experience. His office was dark and bleak. He sat me down and, without talking to me at all, began detailing a litany of procedures, exams and the like that I would need. When my wife and I left, we were scared and felt very alone.

I went to work the next day in a daze. A friend came by who had heard about my diagnosis and recommended I go to Virginia Mason for treatment. I called right away and found out I could be seen that weekend. It was an answer to my prayers.

From the start, I knew I was in the right place. I had done research before my appointment and found out how good the program was and that I would be seeing one of the top oncologists in the Pacific Northwest. He walked in and his first words were that while I had cancer, and we would treat that, he wanted to know about me as a person and human being. He asked about my hopes, my fears, whether I planned to have more kids and how chemotherapy might impact that.

He also went over a much smaller list of tests, letting me know that in his opinion the tests the other oncologist wanted (such as a bone marrow biopsy) were most likely not needed. He explained the benefits of a ‘port’ over other infusion methods and I left hopeful and confident we would beat Hodgkin’s!

My cancer treatment was “surreal” in a good way. Virginia Mason has gone to great lengths to make the experience as comfortable and stress-free as possible. I had several chemotherapy regimens and a stem cell transplant. It was a huge and unique benefit that all my care was provided in the same facility and test results were always returned the same day. I never had to ‘go home and wait.’ As anyone who has faced cancer knows, a long wait for test results is just dreadful!

Everyone we met — from the janitors, to the volunteer concierge cart folks, to people in radiology, general surgery and all throughout the organization — they all had passionately embraced a culture of service, positivity, safety and professionalism. We had a seemingly tireless team of health care professionals who fought the good fight with us, comforted us and helped us heal both emotionally and physically.

My daughter has severe anxiety disorder, so you might imagine what my diagnosis and treatment did to her. Virginia Mason staff went out of their way to include her where appropriate, empower her to help, and to understand the process. I could go on for quite some time bragging about so many amazing people at Virginia Mason!

All that said, it wasn’t an easy road. I remember just after one of my chemotherapy treatments that my kids woke me up one day and said, “Dad, we are so sorry to bother you, we know you’re sick, but can you please make us some breakfast? We don’t know how.” That broke my heart. My sweet kids, so compassionate and needing something so simple that was almost impossible for me to do.

This experience has taught me so much about the journey of life we are all on. I find myself wanting to give back, to comfort and help others as they face a cancer diagnosis. People tell me I am way more relaxed and ‘laid back.’ Having faced the shadow of death helps you figure out what’s truly important.

I think I am in a “new normal.” I am considered cancer free but I don’t want to forget the experience that has gotten me to this point. Today, I am grateful for everything and take nothing for granted, not one single moment…


This story originally appeared on VirginiaMason.org. Meet other patients who bravely shared their stories of fighting cancer, and get the latest information on cancer treatment outcomes and wellness and support at Virginia Mason.