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Cancer patients struggle after Katrina disrupts care

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Kyle Bergeron and Rosalind Breaux speak in voices almost too soft to hear.

Kyle, 16, can barely whisper, his voice frail and thin as a reed.

Breaux, 39, speaks with the low, raspy voice of a woman tired nearly beyond endurance.

They were clinging to life long before Hurricane Katrina hit.

Now, they are among thousands of cancer patients who have been driven from their homes and are struggling to find care.

Although it is not known exactly how many cancer patients were disrupted by the hurricane, at least 8,100 in clinical cancer trials live in states hit by Katrina, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Some of the 150 evacuated patients treated at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center are too "shell-shocked" to provide even basic information, such as the name of their doctors or even their types of tumors, says nurse Deborah Davis. She located several doctors on an Internet message board run by the American Society of Clinical Oncology. She also has pieced together medical histories through insurance records.

Joseph Mirro, chief medical officer at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, says he doesn't know how interrupting cancer treatment will affect patients. Mirro, who has been working out of an affiliated clinic in Baton Rouge, says doctors have been able to resume many patients' chemotherapy treatments, which are given according to schedules based on age, the type of tumor and other factors.

Restarting daily radiation treatments, in which beams are aimed at exact locations in the body, is more of a challenge, Mirro says.

Doctors and nurses have been taking special care of the sickest young patients.

Few were as vulnerable as Kyle, who has acute myeloid leukemia and weathered a bone-marrow transplant only a month ago. Although the procedure can cure kids with Kyle's type of cancer, it is also painful and grueling, says Kyle's mother, Vicki Bergeron of Luling, La. Before the transplant, doctors injected Kyle with toxic drugs designed to kill his malignant cells. Then they replaced those cells with a transplant from his twin brother, Logan. Even the slightest infection could threaten his life.

"Katrina's nothing compared to what he went through," Bergeron says. "He has already been through his storm."

As the hurricane bore down on New Orleans, Children's Hospital moved Kyle, his mother, his aunt and twin brother into the safest part of the hospital. Kyle asked that his father, Charlie, save their family dog by evacuating with her to a vacation cabin in Mississippi.

As the levees broke and floodwaters began to fill the city, Kyle's mother drove him from Children's Hospital first to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. Kyle and his family later flew to St. Jude in Memphis, where he will remain in treatment for several months.

Until his treatment ends, he and his mother plan to stay at the Grizzlies House, a facility for the families of kids with cancer founded by the Memphis pro basketball team. Kyle remains too vulnerable to return home, Bergeron says.

Yet Kyle was luckier than some cancer patients, who were forced to flee on their own.

Breaux, who has advanced colon cancer, slept in her Chevrolet Suburban for two nights after evacuating with her husband and three teenagers. Every hotel they tried was full. So Breaux and her family parked overnight at gas stations, whose bright lights offered relative safety.

Breaux says she had little strength for such an ordeal. She had emergency surgery in May after her tumor caused a blockage in her small intestine. She lost her job as a nurse after chemotherapy made her too sick to work.

Breaux and her family finally found shelter at the home of a friend's daughter in Gonzales, La.

A doctor at the nearby Baton Rouge River Center, a shelter run by the American Red Cross, helped contact the American Cancer Society, whose staff drove Breaux to see an oncologist Friday. She is scheduled to resume chemotherapy today. For now, she is too weak to return to her home in Slidell, La.

Through it all, Breaux says, she has depended on her family's support. "Without them, I would be a coward and quit."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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