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It’s not unusual to develop a cough during winter in New England, but mine wouldn’t go away. Hours after my doctor diagnosed acid reflux, I began coughing up blood. At age 46, I was diagnosed with stage 3A squamous non-small cell lung cancer. My husband was somewhere between Afghanistan and Kuwait when I got the diagnosis. Joyful homecoming became heartbreak when he heard the news. In the days after his return, we had the horrible task of telling our 5 adult children that I had the same disease that took the life of their grandfather a month after his diagnosis. “I will beat this,” I promised them. When I said it, I didn’t realize the odds of beating lung cancer were not very good.

There were no targeted therapies or clinical trials for me. I would undergo “traditional” treatment, with drugs that had been developed thirty years earlier. There was no check in the “curative” box on my treatment plan. The intent of my chemotherapy was “symptom control”. The thoracic surgeon deemed my cancer inoperable. We sought a second opinion from a surgeon at a major medical center who agreed to reevaluate me as a surgical candidate after I completed radiation and chemo. My treatment was over a month of daily radiation with two rounds of 6 day chemo. Weeks after finishing chemo/rad, the surgeon agreed to perform surgery. He was very honest in his evaluation. He might open me up, see the cancer, and close me up again, or take my entire right lung. I awoke from surgery to the glorious news that the cancer had retreated so much, he was able to remove just my upper lobe. After another 2 rounds of chemo, I was pronounced NED (No Evidence of Disease), and I’ve enjoyed clean scans since 2010.

When I told my children “I will beat this”, I didn’t realize that “beating” lung cancer would continue long after NED. After realizing how little support there is for the lung cancer patient, I vowed to help in any way I can, which is why I tell my story. And my story includes a smoking history.

My older sister introduced me to cigarettes when I was 14 and I was invited into her circle of friends. By age 16 I visited the smoking area of my high school several times a day, addicted. It took twenty years to break those chains, and I was proud of my accomplishment. Ten years later, in the wake of my lung cancer diagnosis, I learned that lung cancer’s smoking stigma can repress compassion in others, and reawaken the old guilt and shame of addiction in myself. Depression is common during cancer treatment, but the persistent “Did you smoke?” from friends and strangers is an added burden that no other cancer patient is forced to bear. I share this here because I know there are others, like me, who need to hear “No one deserves lung cancer” and “You are worthy”. {virtual hugs}

People with a smoking history should ask their doctor about screening.  Go to www.lungcancerscreeningsaveslives.org for more information.

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K with husband Bill, hiking the mountains in their home state of Hawaii.

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