I've survived a lot of medical treatment. The most sophisticated and creative was while in the care of an extraordinarily gifted, courageous and talented surgeon. We invited him and his wife to dinner to renew our acquaintance and review the bidding. The dinner was memorable.
I could launch into the details of my 8 surgical procedures performed by this brilliant man but that story is told elsewhere. Of more interest to this community is what are the indicators of brilliance in a surgeon? Unlike general medicine or oncology, surgical encounter time is brief. One can ask about reputation, but thoracic procedures are risky and outcomes are variable involving heart, lungs, vessels, transplants and a myriad of complex procedures to the engine compartment of the body. Using my surgeon as a model, it might be useful to develop a means test of thoracic surgical competence that a survivor might use to evaluate suitability during the span of a short pre-surgical consultation. Here is my list.
Is your surgeon friendly? Is this man or women one you’d enjoy having a coffee or a beer with? Does conversation flow easily? Does the surgeon respond to your elements of conversation? Does he or she listen? Do other practitioners or office staff enjoy being around him? A surgeon that is pleasant is likely to be a surgeon that is sympathetic, benevolent and a true believer of the tenants of the Hippocratic Oath.
Is your surgeon inquisitive? Surgery is a melding of art and science. The art is “what” to do and the science is “how” to do it. Thoracic surgeons are a small tribe that practice in a complex environment. When something new is discovered, your surgeon should be very interested in investigating it for application. If your surgeon already thinks all the “what” questions are answered, find another.
Is your surgeon respectful? In your pre-surgical consultation, you ought to feel like the important one. Your medical condition needs to be acknowledged as important and your feelings, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty should to be taken into account. If your surgeon doesn’t use your name or look at you or attempt to help you relax during the consultation, find another. If your surgeon makes a grand entrance, surrounded by a posse of assistants, and talks to them about your case, find another quickly!
Is your surgeon decisive? At the pre-surgical consult, there is one key decision to be made: operate or do not operate. This ought to be made then and there. If your surgeon feels the need to discuss your case with others, find another. There is so much uncertainty in lung cancer surgery and each encounter will require a decision. Your surgeon needs to come equipped for making decisions, alone.
Is your surgeon acutely intelligent? Compose a non-surgical question on the surgeon's interest or hobbies ahead of the consultation. Listen for passion and detail that indicates sincere interest and evidence of accomplishment. Intelligence starts with curiosity and leads to ability to assimilate knowledge and use it in cross functional ways. A surgeon with a photography interest would know depth of field (the f-stop setting on a camera) is analogous to layers in skin, tissue structure, and visual focus precision. Photography concepts relate to surgery yet it is a diverse field of intellectual pursuit. Avoid those who are interested only in surgery or who say they don’t have time for anything in their life but surgery.
We had a wonderful reunion made even more special by the attendance of my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. My daughter met my surgeon 15 years ago while I was near death. She is also a beneficiary of his skills. Ten years after my surgeries, I asked my surgeon to help find a skilled brain surgeon to remove my daughter’s complex meningioma. He moved heaven and earth to do so. Add compassion to my list.
Stay the course.
Using the words free and invaluable to characterize lung cancer medical care is a hard sell. I’ve seen so many scams promising this, that, and the other thing that deliver nothing more than a money pit. So I was indeed skeptical when Dr. David S. Schrump introduced his National Cancer Institute Intramural cancer treatment program, at our April 2018 LUNGevity Summit, with the words “no cost to patients, including travel and lodging.”
Why didn’t I know about this resource? I’ve encountered so many newly diagnosed folks who had no or inadequate insurance and who had to forgo treatment because of financial concerns. Yet, there is a sophisticated, taxpayer funded, medical system that designs “unique to patient” protocols including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and newly emerging treatments. And, it is free! All patients at the NIH are on investigational protocols, including those who are receiving standard care, so that their tumor tissues, blood, etc can be used to develop new cancer therapies. Once a patient is enrolled onto a protocol, care is provided at no cost. There is no third party billing, deductables, etc.
Then on the second summit day, I learned Dr. Schrump’s Surgical Oncology Team is developing unique vaccine-like immunotherapies using tumor material surgically removed from a patient — a tailored and individualized immunotherapy agent. In an ongoing vaccine study, Dr. Schrump’s team observed immune responses to lung cancer-associated proteins in 60% of patients; several responders have had unusually prolonged disease free-survivals, supporting further evaluation of the vaccine. Dr. Schrump hopes that personalized vaccines may one day be an alternative to adjuvant or post-surgical chemotherapy, the current standard of care. Much more work needs to be done to determine to feasibility and potential efficacy of this approach.
Moreover, they are using aerosol delivery methods as alternatives to IV or oral administered drugs to increase the uptake of drugs into lung cancer cells, and “prime” them for attack by the immune system. Indeed, his presentation was filled with very innovative methods of attacking lung cancer with promising results.
If you are an American and don’t have the financial resources for lung cancer treatment or if your medical team has run out of treatment ideas, contact the National Cancer Institute. You don’t need a physician referral. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, introduce yourself and your diagnosis stage and type and put your phone number in the email. Free and invaluable may indeed be words appropriate to use in concert with lung cancer treatment.
"Count-off...One, Two...Count-off...Three, Four...Bring it on down now...One, Two, Three, Four, One-Two...Three-Four!"
My life is filled with counting. As a young soldier on the march, we counted cadence to stay in step. The rhythm of the cadence was an elixir to the mile-upon-mile-upon-mile of forced march in full combat load. They always scheduled the forced march on the hottest day, or the wettest day, or the coldest day of the year. One memorable march was the day after a hurricane! Weather or not, we marched and counted.
After diagnosis with lung cancer, my life embraced a different sort of cadence. There was the countdown to scan day, then time stopped waiting for results. One...what time is it...just ten in the morning...the clock battery is out...is it back...how bad...how many nodules...how big...ten-oh-two...mets in the bones...liver also...scan tech didn't smile...he saw something...ohGod.... Life just stopped waiting for results. Time stopped!
Waiting for scan results is absolute misery coupled with measured doses of agony and anguish, torment, despondency and gloom thrown in for good measure! Each day was a twenty-five-mile forced march that started but never ended. Cancer sucks but waiting for scan results sucks squared!
Stay the course.
Most days, the cancer is buried somewhere in my thoughts, my work, my hobbies - not at the surface. But there are days when it hits me right between the eyes. Cancer. How the hell did I get here? Is this really my life?
Wondering if anyone else has experienced this.
"Hindsight is 20/20!"
"You know, in retrospect..."
"Looking back now, I'd..."
"If I had it all to do over again..."
"If I had known then what I know now..."
Chances are, if you're a caregiver, you're guilty of saying at least one of these catchphrases at least a little bit often.
I know I am. A LOT a bit often!
Why is that?
Why is it that we never feel prepared to be a caregiver, and always feel like a little of our well-earned wisdom would have been useful at the beginning of our experience?
Here's what I think: our loved one's diagnosis knocks us for a loop; we stumble, we grasp, we stand back up, we take action, and then we can usually coast for a while--and occasionally, the cycle repeats.
But: we were never given a chance to study for this test. We weren't given a warning. We catch the curveball using the only skill sets we already have, and we run with it.
What the **** just happened?
Where do we go from here?
Get our heads back in focus, get info, get a plan.
Stand back up:
We go through our days--every day--as best we can. Somehow, stuff gets done. If it doesn't, we move on.
Take the info we found and start acting on the plan: a testing plan, a treatment plan, a scheduling plan, a support plan, any plan.
The plans in place gradually become blessedly routine. The less work we have to do to establish the plans as the plans settle, the more surprised we are that our days do still revolve--but they just revolve around something we never would have expected. (This is sometimes referred to as the "new normal.")
Any caregiver is familiar with this basic framework.
Finding the way that this paradigm can shift and meld onto any particular family, situation, or lifestyle?
There's the rub.
That's the part that's not so simple.
The GOOD news is: that's the part where other caregivers are the best and most helpful resource.
What calendaring app do you use? What foods help with nausea? What do you say to your kids? How do you organize medical information? Which chores should I prioritize? How can I draw boundaries with my family? How can I ask my friends for the support I need? How can I communicate better with my loved one's medical team? Where can I go for reliable supplemental information? How do I find self-care time? And, by the way, what IS self-care?
At the end of the day, one thing is patently obvious: with most new life experiences, you may not even know what resource/help/knowledge you need (or needed!) until you are well on your way. Caregiving is a prime example.
To that end: the best and most helpful source--the reference with the breadth and depth of life experience to draw upon--are your fellow caregivers.
LUNGevity has TONS of ways to connect with a network of folks with similar experiences. Just to name a few: the LUNGevity Caregivers Facebook group (http://facebook.com/groups/1009865522379898), the LifeLine mentorship program (http://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/support-services/peer-to-peer-mentoring), and the Caregivers message boards here on the Lung Cancer Support Community (http://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/support-services/lung-cancer-support-community).
(Not to mention the Caregiver materials library at http://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/caregiver-resource-center).
Also: LUNGevity hosts the only regular caregiver-focused Twitter chat in the lung cancer advocacy field. We meet on Twitter under the hashtag #LCCaregiver every first Wednesday of the month, starting at 8:00pm Eastern time. This is a sort of live chat room, addressing issues that caregivers want and need addressed. All are welcome!
This month, we will be discussing this exact conundrum: what do you wish you had known before you became a caregiver? What can your fellow advocates (and advocacy organizations like LUNGevity) do to help you learn what you need to know at the front end? How can we help you "grasp" the info you need in order to make a smooth transition into your role, and get settled as quickly as possible in a somewhat comfortable routine? How can you be supported in your role by being given notice ahead of time of what you may need or want to know, do, or think of?
How can you catch the signals ahead of other curveballs?
To assist in answering these questions, and to continue this conversation, we'll be hosting a sort of "Caregiving 101" for our chat this Wednesday. Several experienced caregivers will offer their best advice--the things they wished they had known before starting their work of supporting their loved ones through a lung cancer diagnosis. Please join us to learn together; to hear from others who understand the ups and downs of what you're going through; to share your stories and your advice; and to help us understand how we can better help each other.
Wednesday, June 6th, 8pmET, on Twitter, at #LCCaregiver.
I can't wait to "see" you there! Thank you, my friends!
“I’m sorry, sweetheart these are tumors in your lungs and a form of lung cancer”.
These were the words spoken to a vibrant, healthy 36-year-old female on October 19, 2017, by the thoracic surgeon. I knew that things were probably not good when he came in and asked if I was alone. Unfortunately, I was alone. Looking back, that day seems like a blur. I remember the ladies at the checkout desk asking how I was doing as they ask so many patients all day long. It’s mere customer service, right? I never made eye contact and mustered enough energy to say the word “fine”. I was far from fine, but I just wanted to get out of there.
I never cried in the doctor’s office that day, but walking down that winding hallway and through the parking lot felt like I was carrying cinder blocks for shoes around my feet. The minute I got in my car and closed the door was the moment that I completely lost myself. I have cancer. I am going to die. My parents are going to have to bury their only child. My world felt like it had crashed.
The days and weeks ahead were just amazing considering my new circumstances. People loved on me like I had never been loved on before. I received cards and texts and all sorts of support, but a part of me wanted to tell them that I was still the same person and I appreciated the cards of support, but that I wasn’t dead yet. Please hold the flowers too.
My lung cancer diagnosis was a complete shock as it is to so many. However, I was asymptomatic and cancer was the last thing on my brain. I was hospitalized for a Bartholin Cyst. I had my yearly exam already scheduled with my OB/GYN and this exam was far from routine. I explained to the nurse that I was in pain and was running temperatures between 101-103⁰. I visited the local emergency room twice to attempt to acquire some relief and was incorrectly diagnosed. My OB/GYN admitted me to get antibiotics started quickly and mentioned a minor surgery, but before I went to the hospital, he wanted me to have a CT of my abdomen to identify the cyst prior to any procedure.
Thankfully, the tech caught just the lower portion of my lungs on that scan and the radiologist noted lung nodules. When I went back to my OB/GYN for my check up, he mentioned the lung nodules and ordered a full chest scan. He informed me that people had benign nodules and they could be there from my severe infection, but that he wanted to just make sure that it wasn’t anything.
The next day he called me to inform that the nodules were still there and he would like for me to see a Pulmonary Specialist. I agreed and the Pulmonary Specialist was very concerned about the number of nodules in my lungs which were over 100 scattered across both lungs. He conducted a bronchoscope and a needle biopsy for which both were non-diagnostic and I was then punted to the Thoracic Surgeon. The Thoracic Surgeon removed three wedge sections and sent the pathology off to Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
After further molecular testing, my oncologist educated me on the different mutations and the path of treatment that would be taken for each of them. It was determined that I was Stage IV due to both lungs being involved and was positive for T790M. I began Tagrisso as a first line on November 11, 2017. After 6 months on this drug, my last scans read “barely perceptible”. I will keep taking Tagrisso until resistance occurs and hopefully there will be another inhibitor to take its place.
When I was first diagnosed, I would literally wake up in the night in a panic. I couldn’t sleep, eat or function normally. I started browsing the internet for support groups and pages as well as social media. I found the LUNGevity private patient groups on Facebook and asked to be added to every single one of them. I began telling my story and people started responding to me and sharing their stories. Strangers were sending me encouraging private messages. I saw people living and thriving with an incurable, life-shortening disease. I found hope. I started sleeping and not crying so much. Finding those support groups really made the initial journey a bit easier. Although we were strangers, we were brought together by a common bond. I’ve since been able to meet some of those people in person through the HOPE Summit and my “family” has grown by leaps and bounds. I would have never met these incredible people without lung cancer.
Receiving a lung cancer diagnosis is not something any of us would have willingly signed up for, but I am thankful that I was able to find out before it spread all over my body and treatment options were expunged. I am also thankful for the perspective shift. I now know what it means to live each day with intent. The days of merely existing are over. It’s time to live and love life to the fullest because I now understand the value of each day that I am given.
Sometimes, HOPE is a kitten.
Okay, okay, sure, I know, that sounds a little weird. And a little bit like a desperate attempt to pass a poetry exam.
Let me explain…
Hope is strong and confident. Hope can be fickle. Hope can be hard to corral, name, and predict.
Hope can be ephemeral, and hope is also everlasting.
Hope can be full of contradictions. Hope can take many forms, directions, shapes, and sizes.
You’ve heard the expression “herding cats?”
Hope is one thing that cannot be herded. It is inspired, it cannot be forced, and it is felt differently by different people.
And hope, like most emotions we encounter after lung cancer has entered our lives, can have a complicated duality. An ambivalence. A way of being prickly when it doesn’t fit in our hearts, and a way of busting our hearts wide open.
A way of showing up without telling us why it’s there, and staying with us, warm and fuzzy and comfortable and soft, exactly when we need it most.
And that duality and ambivalence is essential to its nature. It isn’t going away.
…Okay. You get it. Hope is like a kitten. I’ve gotten just about everything I can from that analogy!
But, that’s not entirely what I mean. Let me explain (some more). Let me show my hand.
By way of update:
My mom is one of the people for whom I am a “caregiver.” She has been living with Stage IV NSCLC for a little over three years now. She was on a clinical trial of an immunotherapy medication for just over two years. She’s coming up on a year of having not been on any active treatment. She left the trial by choice, after experiencing some vague side effects that were determined to be likely due to the treatment (more on that another time).
She is exhausted every moment of every day, to some extent. This woman who was always the most productive, vital, “type-A,” energetic soul I had ever met is now essentially housebound. Her profound lack of vim and vigor is the antithesis of her identity, and it has left her feeling robbed. Some days she feels like going out to lunch or running one errand; but there are usually weeks between these good days.
(Side note: we have long made her medical team aware of her severe fatigue, and it was determined to likely be a result of her treatment. Because every patient and every situation is different, please always make your loved one’s medical team aware of every side effect that is experienced, especially when these interfere with your person’s quality of life!)
So, with these long hard days of being stuck at home, not feeling like herself, one might imagine that she would feel glum, and downtrodden, and defeated.
The answer is: of course she does! She’s human!
(Trick question, with a trick answer…)
See, the thing is, that isn’t ALL she feels. Nope.
Lately, despite choosing to not be on treatment, and despite being overwhelmed in the way that only a very tired person who has gone through a lot can feel (I know you all understand), she has also felt…hopeful.
Which reminds me:
She woke up a couple days ago
You heard me.
KITTENS. She wanted kittens in the house. Kittens. Baby cats. Catlings. Cat blossoms. Cat kids. Cat puppies.
We currently have two grown cats. We worship the ground they walk on. We have had both cats and dogs in the past. Pet adoption is an important cause to us, and we tend to make a new addition to the family every 5-8 years.
Following our normal timeline, we have talked about adopting kittens a few times since mom’s diagnosis in 2015. But, 10x/10, she has decided against the idea, once even as I was literally walking out the door to head to the shelter. She has been on a scale somewhere between hesitant and heartbroken each time, and each time because she did not feel she could handle the joy that a new pet brings.
Let me repeat that: she felt she could not handle, or did not want to welcome, the particular joy that a new pet brings.
The joy of a new pet is like Spring: It’s promise. It’s a belief in a tomorrow.
Disclaimer, because I feel I have to make one: the decision to adopt a pet is a serious one, and should not be made lightly. We are very experienced cat owners, and we have gone through the cat-to-kitten introduction process many times over the years. In a caregiving situation, pet care should be particularly deliberately and honestly discussed, since caregivers may or may not have the ability or desire to assume those responsibilities.
But, in our case, that situation could not be more perfect. I mostly live with my folks as part of my effort to help out, so I am around (and, let’s face it, more than willing) to contribute my part to Project KittenHope. At the end of the day, the kittens will become part of the whole family, owned and loved by all of us.
When my mom declared that the haze had lifted and that she was ready to take this step, it was an automatic victory. It was a sign.
It was hope.
Thus: this week, into our lives walked a two-month old little girl cat and a two-month old little boy cat.
And, yet, those of you who are here reading this understand, not needing any disclaimer. Because -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------*-
…one of the kittens just typed that.
As I was saying: because you understand this daily tug of war, seeking and understanding hope.
So, the past few days, while welcoming our new additions, I have literally been herding cats…and herding hope. It appears where it will, often when least expected, and gives its gift of easy breathing and lifted hearts.
Just like the kittens.
This past weekend, LUNGevity hosted their National HOPE Summit in Washington, D.C.: an annual gathering of lung cancer survivors and co-survivors (caregivers!) that is regularly the largest such meeting in the country. It is part family reunion, part medical conference, and part survivorship bootcamp: fellowship with folks who understand what the lung cancer experience feels like; experts who inform the crowd on the most cutting edge treatment and diagnostic research; and tips and tricks for living one’s best life as a lung cancer survivor or caregiver. The event leaves everyone enlightened, invigorated, and aware of information and tactics that can introduce HOPE where there may have been none.
Thanks to the LUNGevity Foundation, May is officially National Lung Cancer Hope Month. We HOPE (see what I did there?) that you will join us every day this month in ongoing conversations about all the HOPE that is out there in the lung cancer field: new diagnostic tests, new medications, new genetic sequencing, new surgeries, new forms of radiotherapy, new places to turn for assistance, new clinical trials, new emphases on patient navigation, and more. (See LUNGevity.org for more of this. Seriously, it seems there is breaking news every day!)
We also HOPE that you will share with us those moments, long and brief and in-between, that give YOU hope, inspiration, and a reminder of why we wake up every day to advocate for patients: for new treatments, for access to help, for better resources, for more information, and—as LUNGevity says--for a world where nobody dies of lung cancer.
I'm in the middle of my quarterly scan appointments. While I was waiting for my blood draw yesterday, I noticed a couple that was apparently new to the oncology clinic. The wife is the patient and, when she was called into the lab, her husband got up to walk with her and she told him she was fine, just going for a blood draw. I looked at his face and saw fear and I just wanted to give him a hug. This is the part I hate the most - when we look into our loved ones' eyes and see their fear. I just want to fix everything and I can't; we have so little control over this part of our lives. I have no idea why she was there or what her diagnosis is, but I definitely said a prayer for them last night.
For the past 11 years, I’ve helped treat lung cancer patients as an RN in a cardiothoracic practice. Then last October, I developed a bad cough that lasted over a month. It was cold season, and my co-workers and I thought it might be pneumonia or even bronchitis. No one suspected it could be lung cancer, since I’m a nonsmoker and haven’t been exposed to common risk factors like asbestos, radon, or pollution.
I had a chest ray taken, which showed fluid around my right lung. The tests of the fluid didn’t uncover anything extraordinary. I didn’t look sick, but I felt fatigued and at times, I had difficulty breathing. A few days later, I had a CT scan, which supported the pneumonia diagnosis, but it also showed a thickening on my chest wall.
The doctors drained the fluid and tested it twice. Both times, the results came back negative for cancer cells. This didn’t completely rule out the possibility, but it gave us reasons to be hopeful. I started taking antibiotics and steroids, which were prescribed by a pulmonologist. But the second CT scan did not show any improvement.
My first surgery was scheduled for late January. The doctors thought I had an infection and that they’d be able to clean it out. But during surgery, they discovered growths in my lung that had expanded into my chest wall. The hospital lab confirmed that it was lung cancer.
My boss, cardiothoracic surgeon Carmine Frumiento, and my colleague, Danielle George, a longtime friend and physician assistant who I work with every day, had to give me, my husband, and my family the heartbreaking news that I have advanced lung cancer. It sounded so surreal that at first, I thought I was dreaming. I have a 6-year old daughter and a 2-year old son.
All of the sudden, I went from being a care provider to being a patient. I had the surgery, and then later that week, I traveled to Massachusetts General Hospital to meet with some of the best specialists in the country. Danielle traveled to Boston with me and my husband, Chris. Before we left, Danielle and Dr. Frumiento helped us prepare a list of questions to ask the doctors at Mass. General.
The doctors at MGH recommended starting a new targeted therapy without chemo or radiation. The results have been very promising on patients with my genetic mutation. But since the medication is so new, my insurance would not pay for it unless I tried an older treatment first. In order for her insurance to approve the new treatment, I would have to progress on the old treatment, or suffer from intolerable side effects. It felt like I was on an emotional roller-coaster. Fortunately, my colleagues helped me appeal the insurance company’s decision, and we won.
I still work as a nurse, but I’ve cut down to just mornings, since I get very tired by the afternoon. I’m very grateful for the support of my work friends, who have become like extended family. They’ve helped to make sure I’m getting the best care. I realize that not all patients have those strong connections, and how important it is to advocate for yourself.
I’ve been fortunate to have incredible support from my family, friends, and community. They’ve helped with everything from meals to child care to raising funds to help pay for my medical expenses. And my family was selected as the beneficiary of the Celebration of Courage Co-ed Hockey Tournament earlier this month. My husband has played in the tournament for many years to help support and raise funds for families affected by cancer. Now, our family is affected by cancer.
It is likely that my cancer will never go away, but I have been told that the genetic mutation cannot be passed down to my children. The goal is to turn my cancer into a manageable chronic disease that I can live with until better treatments are available.
I hope my story will raise awareness that lung cancer can happen to anyone, even young nonsmokers. It’s a fact I never fully realized myself, until I was diagnosed. There is so much blame and stigma surrounding lung cancer. I want to help raise awareness about the resources that are available for anyone who is diagnosed.
“Drug-related deaths have grown to be a major US public health problem over the last two decades. Between 2006 and 2015 there were more than 515,000 deaths from drug overdoses.…” This from a March 26 article in Science Magazine. The death rate averages 5,722 per year over the cited period. Further, “the drug epidemic is a pressing concern among policymakers.” This concern translates to a $865 million research budget for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This budget funds $151,117 per individual drug-related death.
This year, 163,199 Americans are projected to die from lung cancer. The National Institute of Health Lung Cancer research budget for 2018 is $282 million. This level of research amounts to only $1,727 per individual death.
Lung cancer kills 28 times more people per year than drug addition, but the drug addiction research budget is 87 times larger then lung cancer’s on a per-death basis. Clearly, our public health policy makers fail to understand the meaning of the word major. The major and largely unaddressed US public health problem is death from lung cancer.
Stay the course.
My lung cancer diagnosis came as quite a shock to my family, my doctors, and me as I’ve always maintained a healthy lifestyle. I exercised regularly, ate healthily, never smoked, and enjoyed a variety of outdoor sports and other activities with my husband and our three children. I worked as a learning specialist for children ages K-8 and loved my job. Everyone I was close to commented that I was “the healthiest person they know.”
But in March 2011, after worsening back pain, I visited my physiatrist who ordered an MRI. I figured I had a disc issue with my back or created an injury from too much sitting during work. When I saw my doctor for the results, she was speechless; she told me my upper body was "riddled with lesions." I said there must be some mistake, that the scan was someone else’s. As the doctor insisted there was no mix-up and this was truly me, I felt as if the floor had given way under me, a feeling that never seemed to fade from my day-to-day experience.
I was 54 years old. A few days later, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. Since I was an otherwise healthy, active, never-smoker, the doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center predicted I would have the EGFR mutation, and the biopsy results proved they were right. The targeted therapy, Tarceva, shrunk my tumors, and with tolerable side effects, allowed me to continue leading a relatively normal life. I even took up sculling, a sport that I had always aspired to learn.
However, I was disappointed when only after 9 months my cancer figured out a “way around” the Tarceva, which is expected for targeted therapies (referred to as acquired resistance). Thus, began my participation in a series of clinical trials and chemotherapy, all with mixed results and, at times, difficult side effects, which forced me to retire from my work which I truly loved and still miss a lot.
One bright period during these trials was a 14-month durable response from a trial combining Tarceva and the immunotherapy drug called Nivolumab, also known as Opdivo. Unfortunately, after 14 months I had to be quickly removed from this trial due to adrenal failure and colitis. In addition, I have been taking blood thinners since the diagnosis because of a DVT that was found at that time, and a couple of years ago I had a brain tumor surgically removed. My latest battle is with Leptomeningeal Disease, against which I hope to beat the odds once again.
Throughout my treatment, I’ve taken advantage of different integrative health services to help manage symptoms and side effects, such as acupuncture, counseling, support groups, and meditation. I can’t say these endeavors were always helpful, but it was important for me to try to find alternate ways to manage symptoms, both physical and emotional. However, over time my stamina began to wane, and my sense of self efficacy began to diminish. It became increasingly frustrating not to be able to do the things I always enjoyed. The treatments and their side effects can wear you down.
Initially, I struggled to find camaraderie with other survivors who have the same mutation as mine. Social media has been particularly helpful, especially in the beginning when I was trying to learn about different treatments and find a community. LUNGevity, Cancer Grace, and Inspire, and Lung Care Alliance were all useful sources of information and support.
My husband has been a great support and care giver. Initially, he dug into the research to learn what treatments were in development, so we knew what was in the pipeline. Moreover, my children have also been there for me. Even though they’ve grown up and don’t live at home anymore, they still come to visit me as often as they can. It has been difficult for me to accept not being able to participate in their activities and lives the way I was able to when I was healthy. It has been a continuing effort for me to feel “a part of the game.”
If I could share my experience with someone newly diagnosed, I would recommend getting as much information as you can from credible sources and not being afraid to get second opinions. It’s best to be treated at a major cancer center even if it means traveling because the research experience, depth of knowledge, and specialists they provide are cutting-edge. I would also recommend participating in clinical trials if they’re an option, as well as trying to find people to connect with who are going through similar situations.
Since my diagnosis, life has been a roller-coaster ride of living with uncertainty and trying to function amidst toxic side effects. I try to appreciate the good days and keep active. This spring will be my seventh-year anniversary living with Stage IV lung cancer. I am grateful for those who are raising awareness of lung cancer as a growing epidemic in non-smoking women and am excited to share my story to help other patients. I am especially interested in helping to erase the stigma that lung cancer is only a smoker’s disease, and hopefully increase research funding to the level it should be.
Becoming Empowered Advocates
My wife, Heather, told me about LUNGevity National HOPE Summit and that she wanted to attend. She received a Travel Grant from LUNGevity and I decided to join her at the conference. It is one of the best things we ever did. The wealth of information about lung cancer available through LUNGevity is not comparable to anything I could find in Canada or through any Canadian organizations. LUNGevity is so caring, thoughtful, and cutting edge.
Heather and I attended our first National HOPE Summit in 2016. It was so incredibly inspiring. We got to see first-hand that the statistics are just numbers, not individual expiry dates. The number of people in attendence was impressive and the conference was well organized. We met people from across North America who embodied hope and positivity. It felt like a family. The medical professionals at this event were amazing. They spoke with my wife and gave her their contact information if they could ever assist her in any way in the future. After that experience, I felt empowered to become an advocate and to get involved with awareness events with my wife in our home province of New Brunswick.
I followed LUNGevity on Twitter and I joined the LUNGevity Caregivers group on Facebook. I started participating in a few of LUNGevity’s LC Caregiver Twitter chats, which are held the first Wednesday of every month. I utilized the #stopthestigma hashtag on Twitter whenever possible. I volunteered to be a LifeLine Support Mentor to provide peer-to-peer support to other caregivers, and I joined LUNGevity’s Social Media Ambassadors to help raise awareness online.
My goal is to raise awareness of lung cancer as the number one cancer killer, taking more lives annually than breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers combined, while receiving the least amount of federal funding for research. I hope that my advocacy efforts will help other caregivers through sharing my experience, strength, and hope.
Whenever I can, I join my wife in her advocacy work. It is important to us to stay educated on new treatments, research, and changes within the lung cancer community. We continuously meet with Federal and Provincial politicians to educate them about lung cancer, to lobby for equal access to health care, to promote genetic testing, and to demand equal catastrophic drug coverage in Canada.
Heather lends her name and story to different publications to spread the word about lung cancer. Through social media, she has connected with doctors and research scientists across Canada to support their requests for research funding. The most recent was through a connection with a very passionate doctor at the Dalhousie University Research Foundation.
I hope to help educate the greater public that if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. It’s not “just” a smoker’s disease and smoking is listed as a possible cause for all cancers. Lung cancer patients do not deserve this disease. I plan to continue to volunteer at events in my area to help raise funds for research and to promote the work and resources available through LUNGevity. And Heather and I look forward to attending National HOPE Summit together this spring.
My wife, Heather’s lung cancer was discovered by accident. She was having an abdominal CT scan when the doctor noticed a small shadow on her lower right lobe. She subsequently had a chest CT scan. The Thoracic surgeon felt it was pneumonia scar but it was too small for a needle biopsy so he ordered a PET scan.
We went for the PET scan and the radiologist who did the scan also read it and told her immediately that she did not have cancer. (It was not until a couple of years later that I actually read the report which indicated that there had been mild FDG uptake in the upper left quadrant of this spot.) She started having follow-up CT scans every 6 months. On one scan, the report came back that the spot had diminished in size. We were excited because cancer doesn’t shrink but unfortunately not informed enough to know that positioning during the scan can make a difference. She was then moved to an annual CT scan.
Heather had her annual scan in July 2012 and we went to her parent’s cottage at the beach for a couple of weeks. When we returned home there a message on our machine to call the Thoracic surgeon’s office for her appointment. This was a new surgeon as the previous one had retired. She called the office and the receptionist said she was booking her for an appointment to see the surgeon because of the growth in her lung. The receptionist assumed that our family physician had informed us. I immediately called our family physician who was doing rounds in the hospital and asked him what was going on. He didn’t realize that the appointment would be set up so quickly and apologized and we made arrangements to meet at his office. We are fortunate to have such a wonderful family physician who we used as the center for all future appointments and advice.
Heather underwent a wedge resection on Labour Day weekend 2012 to remove her tumor. The tumor tested positive for NSCLC Adenocarcinoma and was scheduled for a lobectomy to remove the bottom lobe of her right lung. This operation was performed on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in October, along with a wedge resection of a nodule in her middle lobe and Lymph node sampling from the mediastinum and hilar. She was Stage 3a T2N2M0 with metastasis in three different lymph node stations. All her lymph nodes also had vascular involvement. Her oncologist patted her knee and told her that she had a 15% probability of surviving 5 years. On New Year’s Eve, ending 2012, Heather began 4 rounds of chemo, Cisplatin and Navelbine followed by 25 radiation treatments.
This has been a journey with many ups and downs with a few scares along the way but she is currently stable and enjoying life.
Today, I happily paint two of my toes red, to celebrate two years of being a survivor. Some days I ask myself it has really only been 2 years because it feels like I got the diagnosis so long ago. Lots of scans and needles and chemo and radiation and....I'm still here!
I woke up this morning, very cheerful, almost like I was celebrating a birthday. I realize that EVERY SINGLE DAY is a gift, whether we have lung cancer or not, but that cancer seems to make each day that much more important. While I was thinking about everything today, I was overcome with emotion. I know that I am blessed to have as much time as I've had. I think about the friends I've made in this "club" that are no longer here. For those friends, and for the rest of us, we continue to choose life.
I was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer on September 19, 2016. The doctor told us that it was inoperable and radiation was not an option. It felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. I immediately began thinking of my children and my wife, Lisa, and that my time here on Earth was very limited. I had no words that day, only utter despair.
As the initial shock wore off, and the option of getting selected for a trial medication was offered, I realized that I may have a chance at fighting cancer and not letting cancer "fight" me. I’m ALK positive, so I was able to start taking a targeted therapy drug. It was shortly after the diagnosis and when I had no choice but to accept this as my fate, that I made the decision to fight this disease by becoming proactive in my care. I have always been a man of strong faith, and God has not failed me yet. Sometimes it takes something so big to appreciate waking up each day to your family and the people you love! I pray to God every night to give me another day.
I was looking for an organization that focused on spreading awareness about lung cancer and funding research. I also liked that LUNGevity provided so many different types of support. We created a team for Breathe Deep Boca Raton, a 5K walk and run that raised lung cancer awareness and funds for LUNGevity for research and support programs.
My wife and I are very active in our community, so we started reaching out to people to encourage them to come out and support the event. We advertised in local restaurants and reached out to local schools and youth recreation programs, and got some things going. My kids and I used social media to spread the word and I followed up with phone calls to remind people to show up. A friend of mine is in a band, so we asked them to come out and play live music at the event. Parts of the event are more somber, when we’re honoring the people we’ve lost to this disease, but other parts are uplifting and hopeful when we talk about research and the progress being made.
I think the impact in the community is two-fold. First, it helps to raise awareness about lung cancer. I felt so strongly about making sure people realize that lung cancer isn’t only for smoker. And it also brings awareness about LUNGevity and that this a specific organization to help people impacted by lung cancer. I’m grateful for the research and medication and for the support of my family, friends, and the community.
I hope the fundraising goes toward research to help find more targeted therapies. We need to fund research for treatment options that increase survival rates and help contain and manage the disease. I’m ALK positive, and there are treatments for that specific mutation, but I’d like them to find treatments for other mutations as well.
I still look at the glass half full, because today, I am still here. My loving wife and children stand with me every day in this long, tedious, sometimes unbearable cancer journey. Through my positive energy and prayers we stay strong, and in September 2017, we celebrated my one-year cancerversary!
It was mid-morning on a beautiful February Sunday in Texas when my phone rang. Randy’s name flashed on my phone screen and on realizing who it was, my mind raced to recall the last time we spoke. Pam his wife greeted me, a mild surprise.
Randy and I grew up in the same Pennsylvanian township and attended high school together. Our lives parted with college and after an Army career took me everywhere but home. Randy settled in our hometown. We had many things in common including surviving lethal cancer.
Five years ago, Randy and I had a fortuitous meeting online in a cancer blog site. Randy was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). We soon reconnected and were gabbling away during marathon telephone calls. When we spoke, our wives went shopping!
Our last conversation was shortly before the Super Bowl. Randy’s disease reoccurred and he was back in chemotherapy. He’d seen blood work indicators during the fall, yet he remained hopeful that treatment would again arrest his cancer. Randy’s form of CLL was characterized by adverse prognostic factors. CLL is rarely cured; never cured applied to Randy.
While recurrence and mortality were frequent topics, hope and joy always dominated our conversations. We helped each other find meaning in our fragile lives. We coached away depression. We talked about everything: music, obtuse rock-in-roll lyrics, being young, high school girls, cars, motorcycles, politics, military tactics, bourbon, ballistics, physics, even the strength characteristics of bolts. We formed a bond of friendship experienced by few.
Pam’s voice was a tell and then instantly I knew Randy was no longer a survivor. Our friendship ended on February 17th. Pam is without her beloved husband, and I am missing my dear friend. Randy was a man of great wisdom tempered by uncommon common sense. His virtues of kindness, selflessness, and courage stood like great pillars in our least-common-denominator world. Today, that world is smaller, colder, and far less interesting.
Stay the course.
The modern world is full of scams, lies, untruths, and junk science. Indeed, for a lung cancer survivor or caregiver, finding truth about lung cancer in our Internet world of mis-information is extremely difficult. How do we know what to believe? Perhaps you've heard of Belle Gibson, the health food purveyor and wellness guru, who spent years convincing us she had a cure for cancer. Don't know the story? Read it here. How did we buy into Gibson's claims? How do we avoid another scam trap? Here is my list for sniffing out a phony lung cancer cure scam.
1. Ignore anyone who broadcast-messages a cure for cancer. No one discovering a cure to cancer will announce it on a daytime TV show, or a TV infomercial. The person discussing the "cure" will more likely act and talk like a nerdy scientist rather than a TV or movie personality. The announcement language will be hyper-technical, interspersed with statistical terms comparing this to that under a given circumstance. The announcement could be televised but the audience will be filled with scientists and physicians. But before the telecast, there will be a series of journal articles discussing and critiquing the findings. The announcement will likely follow the form and tenor of the CERN Higgs Boson "god particle" discovery. Watch that coverage and mentally compare it to an episode of The Chew. If you don't hear words like "the combined difference of five standard deviations", you are listening to a hoax.
2. The cure announcement won't be a sales pitch. Think of the biggest news event you've ever seen, say the announcement of 9-11. Discovery of a cure to cancer will be bigger -- much, much bigger! It will be a world-wide-headline-news story and will be announced by a government. Following the announcement, there won't be a 1-800 number or world wide web address to buy the cure! It won't be a pharmaceutical company announcement. Yes, new drugs showing progression free survival improvement are announced in pharmaceutical company news releases, but these are clinical trial results for a new therapy, not a "cure" announcement. And recall what a new lung cancer treatment drug commercial looks and sounds like. There are all these legal disclaimers, side-effect disclosures, and restrictions on taking the drug. A lung cancer or any cancer cure won't be a commercial advertisement of a drug or treatment. It will be a celebration and the biggest news event of your lifetime!
3. Be very wary of a dietary supplement touted as a cure. Cancer is a disease of the human genome. Each of us has the genetic predisposition to have every kind and type of cancer ever discovered. Science understands the genetic nature of the disease and a changes in diet or taking a dietary supplement does not change or effect our genetic make-up. A change in diet to lose weight, avoid diabetes, or improve cardiovascular health is a good thing, but no one claims taking a dietary supplement or a change in diet cures diabetes, heart disease or cancer, except scam artists. A healthy diet has many benefits; curing cancer is not one of them.
4. Self-promoters touting heroic cancer survival stories are scammers. If you want to read and believe heroic survival stories, they are in forums such as this one. Our survival stories sell hope; they don't sell product. No one here is seeking fame for surviving lung cancer. Certainly, no one here is getting rich surviving this awful disease. Real lung cancer patients know that cancer sucks, treatment sucks, scans suck, the whole process sucks. No one here sits for a TV interview claiming to beat lung cancer by taking this, that or the other thing. While the first rule to being successful in sales is to sell yourself, we are not selling anything.
5. Social media promotion is a scam in the making. Who is going to offer a product or treatment that cures cancer on social media -- a scam artist! Social media likes and shares are not scientific peer reviews. The Super Bowl Justin Timberlake selfie boy achieved overnight fame, but for what? Perhaps he could use that fame to sell tee shirts, but a lung cancer cure? Seriously? And be wary of news outlets who publicize these miracle cure announcements. TV and newspapers sell scam promoters also. They publicize sensationalism so a 30 second report on your 5 o'clock news of a wellness guru who discovered a cancer cure is what -- a scam! Do you know of TV reporters with a PhDs in Microbiology or Pharmacology? Where do they get the competency to evaluate scientific claims? Here's the point; they don't care about scientific authenticity; they want to generate sensationalism. Media sensationalism sells media, not cancer cures. Social media clicks sell social media, not cancer treatments.
Lung cancer is a horrible disease. Sadly, there are horrible people in this world who take advantage of our misfortune to rob us of time and money. Only our vigilance and common sense can protect us. Remember, there is no such thing as a cancer cure, yet! When one is announced, the world will know and celebrate.
Stay the course.
My Dad was always my Ironman when I was growing up. In 2004, my dad had a persistent cough. He went to the doctor a few times and was finally diagnosed with pneumonia. A year went by and the cough went away for awhile. When it returned, my dad went back to the doctor. He was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. I was 17 at the time.
After he was diagnosed, my Dad signed up for Heather Saler’s Lung Cancer Walk in Pennsauken, NJ, which eventually became Breathe Deep South Jersey. My dad didn’t do the full walk, but he was part of the survivor ceremony. I went with him and that was how we found out about LUNGevity and decided to start fundraising.
My dad passed away in 2006, less than a year after he was diagnosed, but he taught me so much during that time. I saw how strong he was during his battle. He never gave up and gave it everything he had.
My dad was a photographer. When he passed away in February 2006, my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and I put together a show with all of his photos at a local restaurant. People could come just to see the photos or they could buy them to help raise funds for LUNGevity. The second year, people who were impacted by cancer, either themselves or a loved one, donated artwork for the show.
My dad was also a runner. He ran several marathons. I ran my first marathon, the New York City Marathon, in 2016. I wanted to strive for something more challenging so I decided to do the Ironman Lake Placid for Team LUNGevity. Lake Placid is the longest running Ironman event in North America and this is 20th Anniversary year, so it will be a great event. It consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run.
Doing an Ironman is going to be the toughest thing I ever attempt. I wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. and either swim, bike, or run for about an hour, then go to work, come home, and train again in the evening. I’ll be training for about seven months total. I’ll be posting my Ironman journey throughout my training all year long on Facebook. I’ll also post stories of my Dad and news from LUNGevity. And hopefully when I finish that Ironman, I will be wearing something LUNGevity.
If anything is going to inspire me to complete this Ironman, it is my Dad. The least I can do is try to raise money for lung cancer research in his name. Every dollar counts and every life matters. I hope that my fundraising efforts will make a difference in the fight against lung cancer. Maybe it is the dollar that helps find the cure, maybe it helps give someone affected by this disease sometime of motivation or maybe it just makes people more aware of lung cancer.
This is my fourteenth anniversary surviving a lung cancer diagnosis. Granddaughter Charlett's decorated toes join mine to keep our right feet forward! I paint my toes every year as a celebration of the joy life brings. In early treatment, there was no joy. There was fear, frustration, pain, uncertainty and scanziety. I'd not yet discovered Dr. Phillip Bearman who taught me the reason for lung cancer treatment -- achieving extended life. Phil decided he would live every moment to the fullest despite the rigors of treatment, and he'd celebrate every year of survival with a painted red toenail. He couldn't control his lung cancer, but he could control the way he felt about his lung cancer. I started living when I internalized his message. My first paint job was at my third anniversary and I'll never miss another.
I am a lung cancer survivor. My message for those in treatment is twofold: enjoy the life extension treatment provides and if I can live, so can you.
Stay the course.
October 30, 2015 will forever be the day my world changed. That day I heard those words that no person wants to hear: “You have cancer.”
I kept questioning how this could happen to me. I was a healthy, 35 year old nonsmoker, and a mom of two great children. I came to learn that you don’t have to be a smoker to get lung cancer. Honestly even if one was a smoker, would it matter? No one should have to go through this terrible journey.
Soon after my diagnosis I saw a surgeon and was told that I was not a candidate for surgery, as my cancer had metastasized to the surrounding lymph nodes. Instead of surgery, I was scheduled for 35 sessions of radiation and two rounds of chemo infusion, believing that if the treatment was effective that surgery could be an option to remove the remaining cancer. After my initial chemo and radiation was complete the tumor in my lung had shrunk considerably and lymph nodes appeared to be clear of cancer. Good news, right? Unfortunately, new scans showed that what had been an inconclusive spot on my liver had now grown into a tumor, and my official diagnosis was changed from stage 3b to stage 4. The new tumor meant surgical treatment was no longer an option, and that medicine is my only hope.
At that time my husband and I realized it was time to get a second opinion, which turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. My new oncologist tested my cancer for genetic mutations. At the time, I had no idea what he was even talking about. Then I received a call from him on a Friday afternoon stating I have the EGFR mutation. I could hear the joy in his voice. After doing some research I came to understand that this was a very good thing, and within a few days I started to take a targeted therapy called Tarceva. My quality of life is way better than I would have ever thought possible. I’m now 37 and living with stage IV lung cancer, hoping that medicine advances faster than my tumors.
During my initial treatment I was bitter. I did not want to hear “you can beat this” or “you are the strongest woman I know” or “you are a fighter.” I just wanted to get through my treatment and move on with my life.
As much as I hate my cancer, it has taught me some valuable lessons. First, it taught me to slow down. I didn’t realize how much I was just trying to get through life, instead of actually living it. Ironically, I enjoy life more now than ever. Second, don’t sweat the small things. Living with a terminal illness helps one understand what‘s really important in life.
Kateri and her family
I first became involved with LUNGevity through National HOPE Summit, a survivorship conference in Washington, D.C. Seeing so many survivors and being able to share our stories and gain knowledge made the experience very special. I’m always impressed by the quality of what I learn and what is shared. The fact that the medical researchers can interact with patients in an intimate setting and participate in the roundtable discussions is very inspiring.
Going to HOPE Summit has been a springboard for many other volunteer and advocacy opportunities. At my first conference, I learned about the LifeLine peer-to-peer support program. As a long-term survivor, I wanted to use my story to try to inspire hope in others who were living with lung cancer, so I jumped at the chance to give back as a mentor.
Through HOPE Summit, I also got to know Andrea Ferris, LUNGevity’s President, and Katie Brown, LUNGevity’s Vice President of Support & Survivorship. Katie recommended me as a reviewer for the Department of Defense research grant program and I love being part of that. LUNGevity also connected me with Eli Lilly & Co. who produced an Emmy-winning documentary about my family and me. I've attended a congressional luncheon on Capitol Hill with LUNGevity, and a lab tour at Lilly.
I was looking for ways to give back in my local community, so a few years ago I started a support group in Fort Myers, Florida. The group provides wonderful camaraderie and community. We meet once a month to share stories and experiences and resources, and we also get together socially once a month. We’re a close-knit group.
In 2017, I convinced four members of my lung cancer support group to attend National HOPE Summit with me. We were so inspired that we decided to organize a Breathe Deep event in Fort Myers to raise awareness about the facts of lung cancer. We were able to share our story in local media and even surpassed our fundraising goal. We held the 5K walk and fun run on November 4 to kick off Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
Breathe Deep Fort Myers brings attention to lung cancer and the lack of funding and gives us the opportunity to get rid of the stigma. We want to let the people in our area know that you don’t have to smoke to get lung cancer, that two out of three of the people diagnosed are never-smokers or quit many years ago.
Being an event coordinator gives me such a feeling of purpose. I’ve been so aimless since I retired from teaching because of my health. Helping others through this event and through the support group is very rewarding. Our number one goal is to provide much needed research funding. We also want to raise money for patient education and support, and help continue to bring top-notch speakers to HOPE Summits. I hope that both the walk and the support group continue to grow and make an impact in the community.
LUNGevity is so patient-oriented and offers so much support and information and education that it aligns with my goals. I want to give back to LUNGevity because I feel like they’ve given a lot to all of us. That makes me want to do as much as I can to help support LUNGevity’s mission to improve quality of life and survivorship.
Melissa (bottom right) with members of the Fort Myers Lung Cancer Support Group and their families at the 2017 National HOPE Summit.
Today we pause to celebrate new life, life continued, and hope renewed. For me this is a holy season but it has a much broader meaning, especially for those struggling with lung cancer. Christmas Day is a celebration of new life and a continuation of life. The new life is Christ while continuation is everyone alive. Including especially, those who live with lung cancer. We have at first glance an insurmountable challenge: to live with a disease that consumes our body with cells made of our body. Indeed, our disease is a paradoxical phenomena. Yet, we live. We rise above the biological paradox, thus our celebration of life continued.
The hope of the season is reflected in many ways. On earth's scale, each day length changes as we orbit towards spring. Thus hope is realized as we progress in day length and temperature change. On the lung cancer scale, we hope for good treatment outcomes and new treatment methods. Fortunately, outcomes are improving, sometimes dramatically as are methods. But the progression of seasonal change is neither smooth nor completely predictable. There will be uncertain days ahead. Similarly, as lung cancer survivors we will face disappointment and perhaps reversals. But like the season, treatment is a progression: a change over time. And the renewal of hope for survivors is the belief that progression toward success will continue.
My wish for all lung cancer survivors is the gift of life continued.
Stay the course.
In December 2016, I started experiencing a lot of shoulder pain and then back pain leading to shortness of breath. I went in for an X-ray and MRI, and was told I had pneumonia. I knew that wasn’t correct because I hadn’t been sick enough to get pneumonia. I spoke to my doctor and insisted on being seen again right away. I was sent to the hospital to have a CT scan, which showed fluid in the lining of my lungs. I had the fluid tapped for testing and it was bloody. I was referred to a thoracic surgeon and underwent surgery to have the fluid drained in March of 2017. During surgery they did a scope to look around and found and removed a cancerous mass. I was diagnosed with Stage IV adenocarcinoma lung cancer.
I was in the hospital for five days. When I got out on a Friday, I met with my oncologist. They decided to test the mass for genetic mutations. My oncologist called me at home to share the results. I was expecting bad news, but she said she had good news. Genetic testing showed that my cancer was caused by the ALK gene mutation. She told me that having a genetic mutation was like winning the lung cancer lottery because there were very effective treatment options.
At the time, Alcensa was still a second-line treatment, but my oncologist and I pushed for me to be able to start taking the drug. It was so new that I was one of the first patients at my hospital to start taking it. Just a few weeks after I started taking Alcensa, it was approved as a first-line treatment.
I have some physical challenges that impact me. Some of them are shortness of breath, muscle pain and fatigue. I have nerve pain from my thoracic surgery as well. I am also dealing with mental challenges. I am working fulltime however, I struggle with memory loss, focus and vision issues, all of which are side effects of my treatment. I also deal with some depression. I explain it to family members as mental torture. You try to enjoy living but, you are always aware that your life can be cut short at anytime. The cancer consumes your thoughts 24/7. That is really hard.
I recently became a member of the ALK Positive Facebook group, which led me to LUNGevity Foundation. ALK Positive has partnered with LUNGevity for a research grant for our cause. It’s a great partnership. I wish I would have known about LUNGevity and the ALK Positive online support group right away. LUNGevity really advocates for patients. They are such a great source for support and information. I noted that they share survivor stories and I immediately decided that I wanted to share my story with others. The more we talk about lung cancer, the more others learn and we can get rid of the stigma. Putting faces to this disease makes a real impact.
I would tell a newly diagnosed patient to reach out to support organizations like LUNGevity. Knowledge is power and there is hope. The more you know about this disease and advocate for yourself the better off you will be. It’s a scary road but a little easier when you find good support sources.
Survivorship means I am living with this disease. I hope to keep living with this disease for many years and provide support and advocate for others. I do not want to sit and wait, I want to take action to help myself and others as much as possible. We need to fight for more research funding and to make others aware of this disease.
I hope to touch others with lung cancer and inspire them to share their story and find their voice to advocate. I want to get the word out about ALK lung cancer and remove that stigma that it’s a smokers’ disease. Whether you smoked or not doesn’t matter. If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. I hope that as others find their voices too, we can get the word out about how we lack sufficient funding for research. That is really important to me. 433 people die each day of lung cancer – we have to change this!