February 27, 2013

Radiation: the Invisible, Potent Therapy

28 Days of Heart

Day 27

John O’Donnell, MD, MS, FACP

I met MHYH’s Co-Founder, Judy Bode, about 30 years ago when I had the privilege of providing medical care for her until I retired from practice in 2006. About 9 years ago, a very competent, respected heart specialist, whom I would still trust to care for me and my family, told 44 year old Judy that he could not find anything significantly wrong with her heart. She was advised that her fatigue and chest pressure were not likely due to heart disease.

Her medical history included the 6 weeks of radiation to her chest at age 10 for Hodgkin’s disease, but the late effects of radiation was not taught in many medical training programs. Standard cardiac testing did not detect the microvascular damage caused by radiation. Physicians can be puzzled when a patient like Judy returned with heart failure that slowly developed as the cardiac muscle became hardened with radiation induced fibrosis.

Now Judy awaits a heart transplant.

In my lifetime Hodgkin’s Disease has been removed from the list of incurable cancers. The aggressive treatment programs used many decades ago led to this amazing turn-around. Doctors knew that the extensive radiation and chemotherapy given to our young patients could have dangerous long-term side effects, but without these treatments the patients had very little likelihood of survival.

In recent decades the huge improvements in the delivery of radiation to the tumors as well as improved chemotherapy regimens have sustained the high cure rates while reducing the long-term side effects. Judy’s problems with multiple cancers arising in the areas that received radiation was not unusual among my patients. Pre-teen and teenage girls given radiation to the chest had an especially high rate of developing breast cancer later in life.

Judy co-founded myHeart yourHands to raise awareness of late effects of cancer therapy among the survivor population, the population at large, academicians and clinicians. I know of no other organization that is doing this and I believe that educating physicians and patients offers hope that early detection could extend the lives of many childhood cancer survivors.


John O’Donnell, MD, MS, FACP

Director for Preclinical Curriculum

Michigan State University

15 Michigan Street, NE

Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Office 616-234-2621

Fax 616-234-2638 

MHYH extends our utmost gratitude to Dr. O’Donnell for is support of our mission. He has already incorporated late effects of cancer therapy, chemotherapy and radiation, into the second year medical school curriculum which had previously not been taught. In addition, Dr. O’Donnell began an initiative to have Judy volunteer for the Longitudinal Patient-Centered Experience, where two first year medical students meet one of one with patients to gain insights into chronic health experiences.

Again, thank you, Dr. O’Donnell, for your willingness to walk alongside MHYH and to bring about change in Grand Rapids, MI.




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