My husband, John, and I were married on the Fourth of July in 2015, and were happy to be celebrating our marriage with the fireworks and fanfare of the national holiday. Little did we know that just two months later, at the age of 35, I would be diagnosed with stage IIB non-small cell lung cancer. This also came just a month after my Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer.
I had begun experiencing some symptoms during a vacation in Florida while visiting our grandparents Labor Day weekend, and I became concerned that I had more than a lingering sinus infection. I had been taking over-the-counter medicine, but I wasn't getting better. When we got to Florida, I had trouble breathing in the humid air, which has never happened before. When we returned home, I went to urgent care and was diagnosed with bronchitis and laryngitis and prescribed antibiotics. But after finishing the medication and seeing no change in my symptoms, 13 days later, I returned to the same urgent care, and saw the same doctor. A chest X-ray revealed a large mass in my upper right lung. A biopsy later confirmed I had cancer. I was scared and even a bit angry. I couldn't believe that this was happening to me and my family, just seven months after we lost my 32 year old, younger brother and my dad's lung cancer diagnosis. At this point, there were still many questions left unanswered, and I wanted to get them answered fast. My husband and I listened to several opinions on what I should do next, but we both felt the need to investigate other options, and find someone who would fight for me and with me! John took the next step, seeking a second opinion at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois. Finding the hope I needed: The second we walked through the front door of the CTCA at Midwestern, we felt we were in the right place. The hospital didn't feel like a hospital. It was beautiful, clean, comfortable, and everyone, from the patients to the employees, were friendly and supportive. Although, for the most part, one out of every two of us in the hospital is a cancer patient, never once did I see sadness or frustration. The people working there were very professional and calm. The patients and caregivers who come to CTCA lovingly call this place the Magic Kingdom, and I totally understand why. The day we arrived at CTCA, John and I met with my medical oncologist, who also serves as the Medical Director of the Lung Center at the Illinois hospital. After reassuring me that I had options, he referred me to an interventional pulmonologist, who scheduled me for a biopsy of my lymph nodes for the next day. They wanted to do a biopsy to confirm the hometown diagnosis that I also had lymphoma, which meant that I would potentially require chemotherapy and radiation before my surgery. Relieved, the biopsy came back negative for lymphoma; I was able to move forward to have my large tumor surgically removed by my thoracic surgeon. Because all the hospital's services are under one roof, you don't even have to leave the hospital when you are referred to another doctor. They come to you. In some instances, the doctor and other care team members came right to the exam room; we didn't even have to leave our chairs. All test and lab results are immediately available for the team to see, and there was no waiting a week for results - a week is too long for someone diagnosed with cancer!
On October 20, 2015, my doctor removed the cancerous mass in my upper right lobe. The procedure went smoothly, and five minutes after moving from the ICU to an inpatient room, I ordered and ate spaghetti. My care team was amazing. The nurses had me up and walking right away. The pain management team met with me to address my pain, which was basically limited to the area in and around my incision. The respiratory team worked with me to help with my breathing. And the dietitian spoke with both John and me to help us eat a healthier diet.
Three days after my surgery, I headed home to heal before returning in 30 days to begin four rounds of chemotherapy.
Managing side effects: The final piece of my treatment plan included four rounds of chemotherapy, to kill any remaining cancer cells in my body. Although my care team educated me about the potential side effects of chemotherapy, you never know how your body is going to react until you begin the treatment. It turned out that the chemotherapy was the most difficult part of treatment for me. I was nauseous. I couldn't eat or drink much, and I got dehydrated. Fatigue was also a factor; it made me want to sleep all the time.
My CTCA care team, which included my medical oncologist, a care manager, a dietitian and a naturopathic provider, provided me anti-nausea medication and lifestyle suggestions, including foods that I may tolerate better during this time. The team prescribed different medications after each round to find what worked the best; John and I knew that we could call or message my team day or night if we needed them for anything. Knowing this was huge to us! They even ordered home health care for hydration for the week following chemo treatments. With additional help from John, who made sure I had healthy foods on hand, my side effects did lessen.
Finding the support I needed: John has always been a caring and supportive spouse, and when I was diagnosed, he didn't think twice about stepping into the role of caregiver. John took on all the chores at home and looked after our two children, Mason and Symmone, while continuing to work full time as a railroad track foreman. We do have a third child, Xavier; however, he is older and goes to school in Michigan.
He really handled everything: laundry, shopping, paying the bills, picking up my prescriptions and coming with me to all my appointments. Seeing and feeling the strength of my husband's commitment to me and our relationship was invaluable incentive in maintaining hope.
I couldn't have done it without John's love and support. He was amazing! He handled everything so that I had no worries and could just focus on beating the cancer. I had some dark days, but I couldn't think of giving up when he was so positive and always fighting for me.
Work still to be done: As of February 16, 2016, I have completed my treatments, and my follow-up scans have shown no evidence of cancer in my lungs, which feels absolutely great!
With one challenge behind us, the next thing we faced is removing smoking from our lives forever. With so many things out of our control, quitting smoking is one of the healthiest decisions we can make as a family.
Both John and I have smoked cigarettes since we were teenagers. Facing the power of that addiction has been really hard. I stopped smoking cold turkey after undergoing surgery, but I picked it up again as I dealt with the side effects of chemotherapy. At the time, I felt that cancer took away everything I liked doing, and smoking was one of the only things I could do that wouldn't upset my stomach; good or bad, I guess it made me feel normal again.
Despite the challenges, I was determined to stop and sought help from my care team at CTCA. I was prescribed a drug that decreases cravings and withdrawal symptoms, and I have been able to stop smoking. I am hopeful that I'll be able to maintain my commitment, as well as encourage John to take additional steps to quit.
The silver lining: As I look back on this experience, both John and I agree that the overriding message we want to offer other patients and families is one of hope. We urge patients and their loved ones to stay strong and keep their eye on the prize: There will be good days and bad days, but ride out the storm because there will be a silver lining at the end. For us, that silver lining is a clear vision of our commitment to each other and a hopeful, bright future together.