LUNG FORCE Heroes
It was March of 2006 when I was first diagnosed with lung cancer, but I consider my journey unofficially starting June of 2005 when I was first diagnosed with pneumonia, strep and mono all at the same time. After nearly a year of antibiotics and numerous trips to the ER and urgent care, a thoracic surgeon recommended that I needed to have a lobectomy on my left lung to get rid of what he thought was an abscess infection that would not heal. At the age of 26, this was a big deal, a life changer for me.
The scariest part before surgery was not knowing if I would end up "normal" like my other 20 something friends. I already had a history of respiratory issues so I wasn't sure how this would impact me.
Two days after surgery I was told I had lung cancer. They were able to remove the original spot but after many tests, we learned there were three other isolated spots in my lungs.
I had tried smoking, but had never truly been a smoker. I had my home tested for radon, which came back negative and I am adopted, so I do not have record of biological family history. I chalk this diagnosis up to bad luck and possibly genetics.
My new oncologist recommended a trip to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, which I did. My parents and two best friends met with an oncologist and radiologist and possibly others. Looking back, the eight hour day was a complete blur except for what both doctors agreed upon. The doctors told us that no matter what I chose to do in regards to treatment, it would, "just prolong the inevitable. I had to specifically ask what he meant, as in weeks, months or years? His response was "months." To say the ride back home was quiet is an understatement. That was 8 years ago.
Like most people, after being diagnosed, I immediately googled and researched everything I could about lung cancer. What I found was depressing and not at all positive. As some of you may already know, I was looking at a 15% survival rate. In addition, learning that lung cancer research was one of the least funded and the most fatal was not inspiring. Things kept looking more morbid for me. I discovered my stance on euthanasia and had candid honest conversations about it. Never did I think I would be having a conversation like that, but this was my reality at that time. Luckily, realities can change.
Fortunately for me, my doctor proposed an aggressive form of chemo, but I was still uncertain how I wanted to move forward. I could not get the "months" out of my mind and I am a strong believer in a good quality of life. I did not want to be sick and miserable my last few months of my life. I went ahead with chemo treatment only because I could not face the other option, which would have been to tell my family I wasn't going to try. I couldn't face that. During this scary and miserable time, I was not real optimistic but I did what I needed to do each day, which was get up, go to work and come home and sleep. I didn't feel connected to many people in my life during this time and it was difficult processing the reality of my situation or being hopeful. Needing routine and a purpose is what kept me going each day. I was fortunate that the chemo was extremely effective. Four months of intense chemo demolished the three small spots in my lungs.
My oncologist had always told me, once you get past the four year mark, the chances of cancer reoccurring decreases. Well, I hit my four year mark with spots showing up on my scan. A few months later they increased in size and a resection was scheduled for my right lung. This second lung cancer diagnosis was a new occurrence. I couldn't decide if this was better than it spreading through my body from its original area or that my body could produce an entire new cancer so easily.
To this day, the most traumatizing part of this journey was losing my hair. It's vain and superficial, but it's honest. The day I shaved my head was horrible, almost as horrible as the day I realized I had no eyelashes and eyebrows. Having lung cancer has changed me: The way I do my work, the relationships that I have with family and friends, to the foods I eat and the people I choose to date or not date. My experience with this awful cancer has impacted all areas of my life, conscious and unconscious. When I decided on my retirement option at work, I had to consider what option gave me the most, considering I do not think I'm going to live to 65 to collect it nor do I believe I am on my deathbed and make irresponsible decisions. My lung cancer diagnosis at 26 and again at 30 has put a huge unwanted weight on me.
I have continued to set goals and accomplish them since being diagnosed, such as getting my Master's Degree in Education and reaching out to Breath of Hope Lung Foundation to become a volunteer ambassador. It brings some healing to know that I might be able to offer hope and comfort to others who are facing a lung cancer diagnosis.
To be honest though, lung cancer has smothered some of my dreams, like getting married and starting a family of my own. My perspective on life and my path are an evolution and continue to be so. I understand that no one can predict their future, but I struggle with my own fate every day. I still experience feelings of isolation, fear and sadness, but I have learned that these feelings will pass. I rely on my amazing family and friends for strength and support and I feel certain that my new volunteer role will bring healing.
I've come to realize there are no easy answers, no valid or invalid feelings or emotions and no numbers or stats that define me or my outcome. I try to live with conviction and joy each day. If and when the time comes to face more health struggles, I will do so knowing I am not alone. Being able to share my story with you and bring awareness to others is a just a start. There's so much more to do! I am ready to help bring awareness and change to the face of lung cancer.
My life is evidence that this disease can impact anyone at any time, and even the most horrible diagnosis and prognosis can be wrong. It is so important to have hope.
Thank you so much for letting me share my story.
First published: February 22, 2016
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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.