Around the first of December 2015 I noticed I was having some shortness of breath when I climbed the flight of stairs to my apartment. I didn't think much of it at the time. I just chalked it up to my age (62) and being out of shape. As time went on the shortness of breath became worse and I developed a persistent cough with some transient hoarseness. I decided it was time to see the doctor.
My primary care provider diagnosed me with asthma/bronchitis, which I had many times over the years in the past. He put me on an antibiotic and an inhaler which usually worked. As the days went by and I did not get any better, I went back to see him. He switched the antibiotic and prescribed a cough syrup. I still wasn’t getting relief, so I went back a couple more times. The doctor seemed to be getting frustrated with me, and I knew I needed to see a specialist.
I scheduled an appointment with a pulmonologist. A chest x-ray showed a large pleural effusion. I underwent a thoracentesis, which revealed malignant cells in the fluid. A CT also showed several masses in my right lung. I was sent to a thoracic surgeon who performed a pluerodisis and biopsy. The biopsy revealed stage 4 metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that tested positive for the ALK mutation.
After learning about the advancements in the treatment of NSCLC, especially in the ALK mutation, I chose to have treatment. My oncologist recommended an oral targeted therapy drug Xalkori (crizotinib). He explained that the drug was not a "cure" but was very effective in shrinking or slowing tumor growth, which it did with very few side effects.
Shortly after being diagnosed and before beginning treatment with Xalkori I started researching everything I could find about lung cancer just trying to get a better understanding of my disease and find support from others who were dealing with lung cancer, it was during this research that I came upon the LUNGevity website. The name was the first thing that attracted me, I thought it was a neat play on the word longevity but as I began reading I soon realized there was a wealth of information and support there and that the organizaton was very actively involved with funding for research which really appealed to me because I feel it is through research that a cure will one day be found.
I liked what I learned and decided to become a Social Media Ambassador so that I could help spread the word about lung cancer and clear up some misconceptions about the disease. I attended a Hope summit put on by Lungevity in Washington DC where I was even more impressed with the organization and the wonderful people involved with it.
The LUNGevity website, Inspire, and the Alkies Worldwide Facebook group have been valuable resources of information and support for me. I am also a member of a cancer support group at my church.
The biggest challenge to me is always living with this disease in the back of my mind. Every scan or blood test reminds me that there is a potential killer living in my body and I don't know what it is up to until I get my results. It is as much a mental disease as it is a physical one.
To me, a survivor is a person who has overcome something bad and lived to tell about it.
If I could give any advice or words of wisdom to a newly diagnosed patient, I would first tell them that lung cancer is no longer the automatic death sentence that it was in the past. I would tell them to demand gene mutation testing so they know what kinds of treatment options are available. I would also tell them that lung cancer treatment is a waiting game. It’s helpful to distract yourself with life and not to focus solely on this disease. Don't give lung cancer that much power over you!
I hope that my efforts as a volunteer will help raise awareness and funds for lung cancer research. I want to make people aware that it only takes lungs to get lung cancer.
Sam and her husband Bob in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, shortly after her diagnosis.