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.