Jodi, a special education teacher in Chicago, was shocked to learn she had stage four lung cancer. She was even more shocked to learn that it had spread to various parts of her body, including her brain.
Jodi immediately met with an oncologist who was very somber and offered a negative prognosis. Though she was not in the habit of seeking second opinions in healthcare, Jodi knew right away she needed a fresh set of eyes on her case.
It was a good thing she followed that hunch. Her next oncologist tested her tumor for biomarkers to see if she had any gene changes that were causing her cancer to grow. She tested positive for EGFR exon 21, which meant she could start taking a targeted therapy pill to help control her cancer, including the lesions in her brain.
Brain metastases, sometimes called brain mets, occur when cancer cells spread from their original site, in this case the lung, to the brain. Brain metastases may form one or more tumors in the brain. Another type of brain mets is called leptomeningeal disease (LMD) which is when the cancer cells spread to the fluid around the brain instead of the brain tissue itself.
Sharon was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015. She had radiation and surgery to treat her cancer and by the end of June, she was dancing at her son’s wedding. Later that summer, Sharon started experiencing dizziness, headaches, loss of balance and confusion. In December it was confirmed that her lung cancer had spread to the brain. Sharon’s doctor jumped into action and in short order she had surgery to remove some lesions in her brain that were causing her symptoms. After she healed, several other spots on her brain were treated with focused radiation. Sharon receives brain scans on a regular basis to make sure any new spots receive prompt attention with radiation. So far, Sharon is doing great and feeling good.
Where once a diagnosis of cancer that had spread to the brain was very concerning, there are now several treatment options not only to control the cancer but to alleviate symptoms. Sharon and Jodi are proof that you can live well after a diagnosis of brain mets. Their stories highlight some important points all lung cancer patients should consider.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion. Choose a physician you trust and with whom you can communicate well.
- Some lung cancers can be treated with targeted therapy pills. Knowing if you have a biomarker that is driving your cancer is an important part of treatment decision making. Talk to your doctor about comprehensive biomarker testing.
- Speak up if you are experiencing any new symptoms. If a symptom, like a headache, comes and goes occasionally it is unlikely to be related to cancer. But if you are experiencing ongoing symptoms, talk with your doctor right away.
- Brain surgery and radiation might sound scary but advances in technology have allowed people to recover well from these treatments. Discuss any concerns with your doctor.
Sharon and Jodi share their stories so other patients know that rather than panic, they can advocate for themselves to receive the best care possible. If you are concerned about brain mets, talk with your doctor about what to expect and learn more at Lung.org/brain-mets.
Support for this project is provided by Regeneron and Sanofi Genzyme.
Blog last updated: March 16, 2022