LUNG FORCE Heroes
Just before Thanksgiving in 2014, at age 45, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. A non-smoker, I share this story in hopes that it may help you or someone you know.
I believe my "super sickness" first began in January of 2013. Prior to that, I would catch whatever bug was going around, feel badly for a couple of days and recover easily and quickly. I was temporarily living in Alabama and traveled home to Idaho for the holidays then caught a wicked cold that had me down for two weeks upon my return. It was the worse cold I could recall ever having and it took me an unusually long time to recover. Shortly thereafter, I had an opportunity to travel to Ukraine and Russia In February/March and remember finding it particularly difficult to be in smoky places and breathe the cold air.
A year later, in January 2014, I traveled from Idaho to Atlanta for a week and became hotel bound for three days with intense fever/cold symptoms. Then in February, I journeyed to Tahiti and became afflicted with Dengue Fever (a mosquito borne illness). I found myself on the receiving end of the most intense fever I had ever had and could do nothing but camp out on the sofa and exist. The remainder of that spring, my lungs did not feel like they were rebounding. I had a constant shortness of breath and a persistent mild cough.
In June I traveled to France for a nice vacation when I realized I had some wheezing and labored breathing. I chalked it up to the after effects of Dengue Fever but by 4th of July, I had a raging cough. I could not speak whole sentences without intense coughing. A simple laugh threw me into strong fits of coughing. My next trip to the doctor's office confirmed pneumonia. The first set of antibiotics did nothing but make me sicker. The next round of antibiotics seemed to help. After two sets of X-rays, it appeared I had conquered it. But by September, my cough had not completely subsided so I went back to the doctor. My PA, who had seen me once a year for the last several years (usually at her request) became concerned that my multiple visits in the preceding nine months were too suspicious so she ordered a CT scan.
The CT scan revealed an "angry spiculated mass" in my right upper lobe and bought me a referral to a pulmonologist. He takes my travel history, both abroad and in the U.S. (the deep south and dry southwest), bat caves, pets, and the fact that I am in the military, deployed twice to desert locations with active burn pits etc., and says something like, "If you are a smoker, I'm telling you this is lung cancer but you are not and you have been to some interesting places, perhaps you have picked up some sort of weird bug." I got scheduled for a bronchoscopy to try to get a piece of the thing and that doctor was 99% convinced it was not lung cancer so we waited to see what would grow. None of the usual bugs grew then it became apparent none of the special bugs were going to grow either, so after a second CT scan, the cancerous tumor was confirmed and thought to be growing. A PET scan was immediately ordered but no other areas seemed to be impacted so in early December, I underwent a lobectomy, no chemo nor radiation, a surgical cure.
My CT scans have been good so far and I am optimistic about the next several. Recovery has been slow and not without it's challenges, but not slow enough to prevent me from traveling to Australia and snorkeling in The Great Barrier Reef six months after surgery or traveling to Fiji most recently.
As I try to piece together my recent medical history, there were very subtle signs that seem to make sense after the fact, but in all honesty, it was a stroke of good luck and persistent follow up that allowed me to be diagnosed at a very treatable stage, Stage 1A.
I credit my medical provider for taking the extra step to order a CT scan, when she could have just sent me packing with more antibiotics. I read my PET scan a year after my surgery and there were actually two things that showed up; the lung tumor as well as a sinus infection. Had I been diagnosed with my sinus infection and not sent for that initial CT scan, my story might be much different today. It has been two years and the series of perfect illnesses that led to a very early diagnosis makes me one of the luckiest people I know!
I tell my story to as many who want to hear it in hopes that something resonates for them or someone they know. If I could pass on two things I learned, I would say:
1. If you are otherwise healthy and you find yourself getting sick with greater intensity and more frequency then there may be something else going on, go to the doctor. Be persistent and get copies of your medical reports, they are yours to have!
2. A medical provider, one you trust, one who understands your history and doesn't stop at the obvious is very critical. X-rays have their functions, however CT scans for lung issues is an ABSOLUTE MUST!
First published: February 14, 2017
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Hero stories are the point of view of the Hero and not necessarily the American Lung Association. The Lung Association does not endorse any specific provider, facility or treatment.