Until two years ago, I thought only smokers could get lung cancer. Then at age 28, as a never-smoker and a former collegiate athlete, I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.
I’d had a cough, a wheeze and pain in my right shoulder for several months. I was still able to work out and chalked up the symptoms to allergies and asthma. An eventual chest X-ray prompted a CT scan, and within a matter of days, I was told I had lung cancer. I had a golf ball-sized tumor in my right lung, and the cancer had spread substantially, making me a stage IV patient.
The news was surreal; it was hard enough to conceive that I had cancer, but lung cancer? Due to the stigma that “only smokers get lung cancer,” I felt isolated. It can sometimes feel that others are judging you for somehow “causing” this disease. But cancer is cancer, I quickly realized, and regardless of the body part that comes before the word “cancer,” no one deserves to suffer this horrible disease.
I was ready to fight, and I wanted the tumor out of me. I was shocked to learn that, as a stage IV patient, I was not a candidate. Still holding onto the hope that I would someday have my surgery, I began traditional chemotherapy. Despite its dismal 20 percent response rate, I was excited for treatment, seeing it as an ally, assisting my body in attacking the disease.
I am so grateful that I was part of the 20 percent, with each scan showing less and less cancer. After seven months, my oncologist heeded my constant pleas, agreeing that it was time to “think outside the box” and explore the option of surgery. I met with surgeons across the country. Most were skeptical and hesitant, but Dr. Raja Flores was my angel. He believed in me and wanted to give me a chance at life. On February 8, 2013, he removed my entire right lung, part of my diaphragm and numerous lymph nodes. Most importantly, the next day he delivered the joyous news that I was NED: No Evidence of Disease.
But the hard work wasn’t over. I spent the next month adjusting to life with one lung. Just as I was beginning to acclimate, I began daily radiation treatments to my right lung cavity, which proved to be harsher than the surgery. I suffered from severe nausea, weight loss and fatigue. But each time that my will was taken to the brink, I reminded myself why I was fighting: for my husband, my future children and the life I always dreamed of living. From that, I garnered the strength to push through another day.
It has been 20 months since my surgery. I am happy to report that I am still NED. Life with one lung has some challenges, but it’s still life. I will take occasional bouts of breathlessness, struggling with flights of stairs and a permanent need for 10-12 hours of sleep over the alternative. Dr. Flores gave me that choice, and I am forever grateful to him.
My diagnosis turned my knowledge of lung cancer completely on its head. I came to learn, obviously, that even people like me could get this disease. I also learned that, due to the stigma, lung cancer funding and research lags far behind many other cancers. As a result, it is the number one cancer killer in America – killing more than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined.
Now when I speak with other patients, I tell them this: Believe in yourself. Fight for your life. Do not let guidelines and statistics limit you. Search for your path and advocate for the best care possible. Second, fighting cancer is demanding and daunting. Give yourself a break and celebrate the little things. And finally, cancer threatens your future; don’t ever let it take the present. Each day, each moment, you must fight; you must have hope and you must live.