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.