Alumnus Owes his Life to the University

5 min read  |  May 21, 2024  | 

Chris Cunningham graduated in 1997, met his wife on campus and recently came back to receive treatment at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center for his rare cancer.

About three years ago, Chris Cunningham ’97 bought a brick on the Love Bridge near the wellness center on campus. It was a Valentine’s Day surprise for his wife of 26 years, whom he met as an undergraduate in 1994. She was a nursing student. He was an English major. The brick is a public remembrance that will stand the test of time.

Brick on the Love Bridge at the University of Miami

“That’s going to be there forever because that’s where we met — that’s where we fell in love, and here I am, just a few yards away from there, getting life-saving measures to treat my cancer,” says Cunningham. “You know, the University of Miami is a really special place.”

Cunningham sees meaning in his UM experiences — they all dovetail thematically from his education to marriage and current treatment.

On the insistence of his wife, Cunningham went for an initial check with his eye doctor for a lump near his eyelid, which was sore. His wife noticed it when they were sitting at the dining room table.

“I didn’t think much of it,” recalls Cunningham.

He received some antibiotics and a possible diagnosis of sinusitis, but things didn’t get better. He saw an ENT, who ordered an MRI, and then an ophthalmologist sent him for a CT exam.

There was a mass.

The Biopsy

After waiting for several weeks, not knowing what it was, Cunningham had a surgical biopsy that removed 50% of the mass for testing. However, there was difficulty in identifying what it was. They eliminated more than 50 cancers and still could not find a match. His surgeon says it’s probably anomalous — nothing to worry about.

“And my wife, again — God bless her — suggested that I see an oncologist to make sure I get a second opinion, and that’s when we made an appointment with Dr. Ney Alves, who is affiliated with Sylvester.”

Second Opinion

Ney Ricardo Ferraz Alves, M.D., a hematology oncologist at Sylvester, part of UHealth – the University of Miami Health System, quickly identified Cunningham’s mass as a rare type of lymphoma. Cunningham had mucosal-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) of the left orbit. 

“It’s the type of lymphoma that grows outside lymph nodes and can grow in different organs, like the eyes, stomach, nervous system—different places, which makes it harder to diagnose,” says Dr. Alves.

Once Dr. Alves’ diagnosis came, Derek Isrow, M.D., Ph.D., a Sylvester radiation oncologist, helped devise a plan that “energized” Cunningham. The guidance gave him confidence. Dr. Isrow noted that although MALT cancers are uncommon, they are seen frequently at Sylvester because of its association with Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. 

“When patients come to my clinic with a diagnosis of cancer, they are typically very nervous, especially after hearing they will need radiation therapy, which sounds frightening. I always start by saying that feeling worried is extremely normal, and I make sure the entire process is explained in an easy-to-understand way while providing information about possible side effects and how we will manage them,” says Dr. Isrow. “I answer all the patient’s questions thoroughly and they typically leave feeling way more comfortable and prepared.”

Radiation treatments took place five days a week for three weeks for Cunningham. Treatments began just after Thanksgiving and his last radiation treatment was just before the holidays. While the treatments “knocked” him over with fatigue, his family attended to him so he could rest and recover.

According to Dr. Isrow, radiation therapy can have numerous side effects depending on the location treated. Fatigue is a common side effect, but every patient experiences this to different degrees.

“I always recommend healthy meals, drinking plenty of water, a bit of light exercise and going to bed early during treatment, and this seems to really help alleviate any tiredness,” Dr. Isrow says.

“I’m feeling good. As close to 100% as you can wish,” Cunningham affirms. The worst part was not knowing what it was and the wait. “Dr. Alves and Dr. Isrow have been marvelous in terms of just being very compassionate, very understanding. They have terrific bedside manners and are very kind.”

New Year, New Health

Cunningham praises his wife and remarked that her path fits nicely within his ’Cane identity. Had it not been for her early UM nursing education and track, she may not have known to recommend the lump check and second opinion.

As a father of three, last year’s holidays were tremendously more significant, and Cunningham feels blessed. The treatment didn’t affect his sight. He has an excellent prognosis with a 95% cure rate, and he made it through because of the support from his family and Sylvester.

He is in awe of UM’s impact on all areas of his life and looks forward to good health for the rest of 2024.

“I’m a ’Cane through and through,” he says. “UM has given me so much, you know, in terms of the wonderful things that I have in my life: my education, my wife, my maturity. And now here they are saving my life.”

Monica Smith is the executive director of content for Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Tags: cancer care in Miami, Dr. Derek Isrow, Dr. Ney Alves, patient stories, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

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