My lung cancer diagnosis was two years in the making. I spent a lot of time with my primary care physician complaining of a persistent cough and shortness of breath. Breathing tests and blood tests came back as normal, so my diagnosis was, “reactive airway syndrome.” Two chest x-rays taken one year apart were read as normal. My physician put me on inhalers and allergy medicines and told me that I did not have lung cancer, even though I reminded her that lung cancer ran in my family.
In August 2014, I took my chest x-rays to a pulmonologist for a second opinion. He looked at my films and pointed out a small shadow behind my heart. From there, a CT scan of my chest was ordered. The results of this simple scan revealed that I most likely had lung cancer. A bronchoscopy confirmed the truth: I had non-small cell lung cancer. Next step was a PET scan to stage the cancer. This test confirmed that I had stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. Stage IV means that the cancer has spread from the primary site to another location in the body; in my case it was in my bones.
The first oncologist I saw told me that there was no cure for stage IV lung cancer. She said that I would be placed on palliative care. The word ‘palliative’ scared me so much that I turned to the internet in order to learn more. What I found was that the five-year survival rate for stage IV lung cancer was less than 6%. I also learned that there were no local support groups for lung cancer. My decision to get a second opinion saved my life. I found an oncologist in Seattle that gave me hope. He said that we can treat this like a chronic illness so for three and a half years. I drove to Seattle every three weeks. When the treatment regimen began to fail, my oncologist found a clinical trial at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas.
Last October, I became a patient of MD Anderson. I fly to Houston every four weeks so that I can participate in a clinical trial. Currently, my Seattle and Houston oncologists are in the process of looking for a new treatment, but due to the lack of research funding, there are not very many options available. Several survivor friends of mine have posted a saying, “My job is to stay alive until the medicine and research catch up.” My hope is that when my current treatment fails, I will be able to join another trial.
Lung cancer has not stopped me from working or enjoying life; but it has changed who I am and how I see things. I have chosen to live life with gratitude. I see that the glass is half full rather than half empty. I work full time, exercise as much as possible and enjoy spending time with my family. As a lung cancer patient, I’ve also become an advocate. For the past three years, I’ve attended the Lung Cancer Alliance Summit, where we meet with representatives of the U.S. House and Senate. We share our stories and ask for support on measures that would benefit lung cancer patients. I’ve also hosted several awareness events in the Vancouver/Portland area.
Having lung cancer has made me realize that there are so many misconceptions out there. People think that in order to get lung cancer, you must be exposed to a risk factor such as smoking, radon, or having been in the military. What people do not realize is that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer. In fact, an emergency room doctor asked me if I’d ever smoked, and when I replied “no,” she said, “Well, there is a lot of radon out there.”
Since my diagnosis in 2014, I’ve volunteered my time by hosting a monthly support group. I’ve been interviewed by the Columbian Newspaper and KGW news. It’s important to me for others to learn the facts. More people die of lung cancer than any other cancer; yet it receives the least funding. We lose 433 people every day from lung cancer. I would like to see this number drop, but we can’t do it without the public’s help.
It’s time we change the conversation about lung cancer and educate our physicians. Let’s stop the blame game, show compassion and fund research. No one deserves to die from lung cancer!