"Valerie, you have lung cancer." These words came through the phone, from the pulmonologist I had met with recently, and hit me like a ton of bricks. I replied, "With all due respect doctor, I believe you have the wrong patient's chart." He chuckled and said, "No, I wish it weren't true but it is." I was in disbelief of this news for many reasons, one major one being that I had never smoked. I honestly did not know that you could get lung cancer without ever being a smoker. I quickly learned that the fastest growing category of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients was women between the ages of 35 and 50 that never smoked. I fell firmly in this category and I am here today to put a face to lung cancer.
What started out as a nagging cough led to a myriad of tests, scans and ultimately the diagnosis of lung cancer. My husband and I often do volunteer work in third world countries, so a dear friend of mine convinced me that it was just "jungle rot" in my lung from one of my many volunteer trips.
After a review of my case by the tumor board and several physicians, they decided the best course of action was a complete right pneumonectomy. In layman's terms, they recommended removing my whole right lung. After the big surgery, it was determined that I was cancer free and subsequent chemotherapy or radiation would not be necessary. By God's grace, I have continued to remain cancer free since the surgery and recently celebrated my 10 year anniversary.
Through the healing journey, I was led to create and eventually co-facilitate a lung cancer survivor's group based in the Portland area. Through this group I have had the opportunity to speak with many newly diagnosed lung cancer patients. My message is often the same: This is your own journey, do not believe what the statistics on the internet will tell you. While I have grown close to many in this group, it has been hard to say goodbye to some when they do not survive the attack of cancer. I have also been able to share hope as lung cancer research and treatment has come so far in the 10 short years that I have been a survivor. There have been numerous new genetic mutations identified and subsequently, treatments developed to target these mutations. All of this is due to the increased funding in lung cancer research and treatment.
What has the last 10 years meant to me? It has meant seeing both of my sons graduate from college, get married and meeting my adorable grandson Henry. I have seen my mother in law, who I adored, pass from the same type of lung cancer as I had. I have seen many beautiful Oregon sunrises and sunsets. I have been able to travel to Trinidad, Mexico and the Dominican Republic to participate in volunteer work with children with disabilities. I look at life differently now, knowing how very precious and fragile it is. I try to see the best in everyone and focus on making the world around me a better place. None of this would have been possible without the advancements in diagnosing and treating lung cancer. This is why it is critical to continue to fund affordable health care and lung cancer research. We all deserve to see more sunrises.