Eileen H., AL
Just over one year ago, at the age of 82 years, my worst nightmare came true; I was diagnosed with the non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) called adenocarcinoma. After a holiday in Bhutan and Sikkim, I had a slight cough but did not take any notice of it until one night I coughed up a lot of blood. Then I had to do something and I had to do it fast. I was sent for an X-ray, by now the cough was well entrenched and causing me a great deal of discomfort. Imagine my surprise on the Friday evening, only hours after the X-ray, when my GP telephoned me to say my right lung was partially collapsed and I had a "lung mass" which meant a tumour. My first reaction, was shock, this simply could not be true. Not me, I was far too healthy and I had given up cigarettes, 26 years ago.
Strangely, I didn't care about the cancer, I was going to die one day anyway, but I did care that I would have to cancel an expedition, I planned to the remote kingdom of Mustang in Nepal. I had waited fifty years for this opportunity and in the flash of an eye, my dream was gone. What was I to do? I live alone; my family cannot be described as close. How would I manage?
I phoned every help line, I looked on every web site on the internet. The prognosis was poor. Things took a turn for the worse after a scan and a bronchoscopy; I was told that if I had waited a further six months, I would be heading for the grave. I now had to have a biopsy so a decision could be made as to the kind of treatment I would be given. So off I traipsed to yet another hospital.
Telling people who needed to know was a nightmare, I could not bear the thought of sympathy or the pain it would cause my nearest and dearest. I narrowed it down to a select few; after all I didn't want the inevitable whispering behind my back and every one pussy footing round me. I had a disease, I had got to learn to live with it, just like high blood pressure and bronchitis, and there was little prospect of it going away.
After the biopsy, I had an appointment with the consultant oncologist at the Lingen Davies Clinic in Shrewsbury. I could not have found a better man. I heaved a sigh of relief when I found he was a Tamil Indian from the south of India with a good reputation. We both shared a love for Tamil food which is some of the best in the world. Hurrah, we had something in common. I had visited India countless times so I knew a little bit about his culture. He told me the bad news the tumour was 10.5 cms in size, it was leaning on the main vein and my wind pipe. It had taken over the lymph glands and there were nodules in the left lung. No wonder I was coughing. This was not good. At this point in the discussion; I mentally started choosing the hymns for my funeral service.
I was offered palliative care because I could not be cured. He proposed the following treatment, a five-day course of radio therapy, a course of Dexamethazone and two years on a trial immune therapy drug Pembrolzimab also known as Keytruyda. This meant, I would have to attend the clinic every three weeks for treatment. Sounded like a death sentence, being tied to a clinic for two years.
There was no other option, I accepted the offer, and I felt privileged that I had been allowed to go on this trial at my age. According to the report, my health was excellent (the last time I had been in hospital was 1958) and I was a suitable candidate. The list of side effects of the drug was enormous; I did a quick check and decided to ignore them. They were more likely to kill me, than the cancer. There was nothing for it; I would have the treatment and work out later how to cope with my situation.
My life was travel, in India and the Himalaya, if these places were denied to me, I was dead already. I looked at my age, I could not afford to wait and see what happened after the treatment was finished; I would be too old to head back to Ladakh or go on my Nepal expedition. My goal was to return to both countries just one more time. Keeping this thought as a beacon in front of me, I moved forward.
To hasten the results, I listened to Tibetan and Indian healing music, and read a book on positive thinking. This would get me into a more hopeful frame of mind. At the end of the road, my target was to reinstate the Nepal expedition, return to Ladakh and see my friends and as I slowly got better, I became more hopeful, I had made my mind up it was Mustang and India, or bust or rather die in the attempt.
Last Christmas, I flew to Colombo and there were no adverse affects after the flights. When I decided to go to Nepal, none of my doctors were happy, but I have only one life, it's now or never and not sometime in the future. Then last April, I finally made it, I went on my expedition to Mustang, the journey of a lifetime. We went as high as 15,000 feet on the Nepal/Tibet border without any ill effect, no breathlessness, nothing.
I came back to the UK, my consultant oncologist, said he had never had a patient with lung cancer who had been so high. After a further scan, we found the cancer had vanished from the left lung, the lymph glands in the right lung and the tumour had shrunk considerably. I have now been on the immuno-therapy for a year, I have lots of energy, and the side effects are bearable.
In late September, I travelled once more back to Ladakh, flying from sea level in Delhi to 12,000 feet in Leh, and saw my friends who I have known for 40 years. The altitude did not affect me; I had no problems with the lung cancer despite the unseasonal cold and wet weather.
At home, I have an online business The Kabristan Archives and a blog Himalayan Miscellany, to keep my mind occupied. While I am at it, I have decided to publish my travel diaries and have just published Everest or Bust, A Trekking Adventure, on Amazon, also obtainable through The Kabristan Archives. These interests will keep me busy, until I plan the next adventure.
Learning to live with lung cancer is not easy, but it is possible. The secret is to downgrade the disease (in your head), to remain positive, take exercise, always be busy, and make the most of the time you have left. So find yourself a goal, go out there and achieve it. You can if you want to and never give up hope.
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