In the Fall of 2015, I was helping my teenage daughter, Jayne, recover from shoulder surgery when I discovered a tick bite that quickly developed into a nasty rash. I went to the doctor to get antibiotics, never imagining that visit would change my life.
Just two weeks after being on the antibiotics, I developed a dry, hacking cough, which I thought was the result of the tick bite. I never go the doctor, because I’m never sick, but going to the doctor this time probably saved my life.
Although an initial chest x-ray didn’t show any abnormalities, a follow-up x-ray prompted a referral to a pulmonologist. Unfortunately, a bronchoscopy revealed a fast-growing tumor in my lungs. The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. I was not a candidate for radiation therapy, but after six weeks of chemotherapy, the tumor continued to grow. Throughout chemotherapy, I never missed a day of work. I’m the Executive Director of the North Alabama Chapter of the American Red Cross. I remember going to meetings in the big board rooms with fancy chairs, and then getting up only to see that I’d left a large pile of hair behind!
Because of the failed chemo treatment, my doctors then put me on an immunotherapy treatment plan, which helped my energy level so much I took up walking as much as 12 miles a week. The tumor started shrinking; however, it pulled the lining of my lungs and caused extreme bleeding. My doctors did not feel comfortable operating. Another bronchoscopy failed to detect the cause of the bleeding and the doctors I had at the time were not able to offer me additional treatment options.
After traveling to the Florida Keys with my family for what I thought would be my last vacation, I decided to consult with a few cancer centers. The bleeding had caused me to lose my mobility. After meeting with the Medical Oncology Director, Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) Lung Cancer Institute and Vice Chief of Staff, CTCA Atlanta, I decided to follow that team’s recommendation for surgery to remove the right lower lobe.
When I went to CTCA®, the blood loss and bone pain was so bad that I couldn’t walk or wear shoes. Now that I’ve had the surgery and time to recover from that, I have no loss of lung function. I am myself again. I continue to take my immunotherapy and have checkups every three months at CTCA.
I felt comfortable at CTCA because they have a team devoted to treating lung cancer patients, so they were able to tailor a plan to my needs specifically. Support from my family support was also critical to my recovery. My daughter was my encouraging caregiver, my husband treated me like a pretty princess and my son sent me inspirational sports videos every single day.
The stigma of dealing with lung cancer as a young, non-smoking woman in my 40s, has been one of the toughest challenges. I was repeatedly told it was not lung cancer because there were no obvious signs. Everyone asks me, ‘How long did you smoke?’ Then they ask if my parents smoked. Not many people realize that although smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, there are so many other factors.
Thanks to advancements in cancer treatment and the work of organizations like the America Lung Association, it’s a more promising time than ever for lung cancer patients. Today, there are so many more treatment options; so much more hope.
First published: October 30, 2018