Chelsea C

Chelsea C., CA

Today is my lungaversary! A year ago today I underwent surgery to remove a tumor in the upper lobe of my right lung. I lost more than a third of my lung. It doesn’t sound like a lot until, well, you don’t have it. The story of how I ended up being diagnosed is one of luck and determination. And the moral of the story? You must be your own advocate and trust your instincts when you know something is wrong.

For several years I complained about pain in my right shoulder and pectoral muscle, as well as this warm sensation that felt like it ran from the front part of my shoulder towards my heart. That warm running sensation would trigger an anxiety attack, which made me feel like I was having a heart attack. I was told repeatedly by doctors in Istanbul, Atlanta and, even, Bellingham, that it was 1) in my head, 2) an anxiety attack, 3) a rotator cuff injury or --my favorite-- 4) being fat, out of shape and, therefore, short of breath - and that in turn was triggering an anxiety attack that was making me believe I was having a heart attack.

Turns out, it was lung cancer. And the symptoms I had — the shoulder pain, the upper right pectoral discomfort, the warm running sensation, the shortness of breath — are typical symptoms. I didn’t have a cough.

I’ve tracked down x-rays and other films from over the years, and the tumor was there — small, but visible— for a few years prior to my diagnosis. It was either missed or ignored by a number of medical professionals. But that’s for another story.

The cancer was caught last year, a few days before my birthday, after I experienced a moment where I couldn’t take a full breath.It was a strange feeling, only on my right side. It passed within seconds. But it felt like something was wrong. I still remember saying to the doctor at the walk-in clinic, “It feels like something is wrong, but it’s probably just an anxiety attack.” But this doctor did something that the others didn’t do - he listened, really listened to what I was describing. He ordered a few extra tests. One was a chest x-ray. A few hours later I took a call from that doctor as I was standing in the pet food aisle at Haagens, buying food for Socks and Nike the Cat.

“Do you have any chest films we can look at,” he asked.

I could feel the color drain from my face.

“What did you find?” I asked.

“There appears to be a mass in the upper right lobe of your lung,” he said.

I was silent for a minute, staring at the Blue Buffalo canned kitten food.

That doctor likely saved my life because he listened … not just about my symptoms that day, but about my journey of complaints about my symptoms.

A year ago today, I woke up in the hospital with a stranger looking over me, holding my hand, talking me through the pain and the tears. There were more strangers - wonderful nurses, male and female — who would get me through those first hard hours, encourage me to take my first steps with a chest tube, then more steps without the chest tube. The hospital wouldn’t allow my sister in the building. COVID protocols.

I am one of the lucky ones. I sometimes need to remind myself of that when I have a tough moment. Yes, I still have them — moments of frustration, moments of sadness and moments of anger. But those moments are fewer and fewer these days.

I’m still working to restore as much lung capacity as I can. It’s harder than it sounds. I am determined to get as much back as I can. I am after the lungevity, so to speak.

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