In 2005, then 51-year old Melissa Crouse was a single parent raising three children. A middle school teacher and ski instructor, she was very happy with her life in Pennsylvania. Once one child was launched and two were in college, her brother encouraged her to leave behind the cold and head south to live close to him in Florida. Spontaneously, during one of her visits to see him, she applied for teaching jobs at a few local schools. When she was interviewed for and immediately offered her dream job as the Orchestra & Chorus Director at a local creative arts school she decided to go for it. That decision not only changed, but likely saved her life.
Asymptomatic Lung Cancer: The Physical That Saved Melissa’s Life
As part of the onboarding process, Melissa was required to undergo a physical which included being tested for tuberculosis. Fortunately for her, the doctor also ordered a chest x-ray. Melissa, who was asymptomatic, had Stage 2B lung cancer.
Soon after the diagnosis, Melissa had her upper left lobe removed and underwent six cycles of what was, at the time, the standard chemotherapy treatment. Her follow up scans were good for several years. Then, in 2009, a radiologist noticed a slight shadow on the very bottom of her lung and ordered a scan of her abdomen. Melissa’s liver was full of cancer.
“I was on a clinical trial when the librarian at school asked me if I had seen the news the night before. Mass General Hospital was recruiting young, otherwise healthy, non-smokers for a clinical trial. That’s how I got to my oncologist who put me on proton beam therapy and who would, three years later, discover my RET mutation. At the time, there was no targeted therapy – my mutation is found in only 2% of lung cancer patients – but a new drug for ALK+ helped for a bit. Two years later, yet another clinical trial – this one specific to RET – became available. That was two years ago. I am now stable, not NED, but haven’t felt this good in years!”
Using Her Asymptomatic Lung Cancer Diagnosis to Make a Difference
A teacher by trade, Melissa is a born orator. When she was asked to speak at a local gathering of lung cancer patients she readily agreed. Since that first engagement, she has become an outspoken advocate for lung cancer patients. She is a Lifeline Mentor, on a survivor advocacy council, is a peer reviewer, attends advocacy days on Capitol Hill, writes a blog and is a patient representative for two pharmaceutical companies. She knows firsthand how important research is and is living proof, 14 years after diagnosis, that new treatment options can and do make a difference in the lives of lung cancer patients.
A couple of years ago, Melissa was part of a documentary about lung cancer. Not only was it well received within the lung cancer community, but it won an Emmy Award! Because of that, she was interviewed for a story in the local newspaper during which she asked that they make mention of her desire to start a local support group. That support group is now solidly established in the local health community, a source of great strength for lung cancer patients, and among Melissa’s proudest accomplishments.
As for how lung cancer has changed her life,
“It has, quite simply, heightened my joy. I know we cannot control the tick tock of time, but we can control what we do with it.”
It has been 14 years since Melissa’s shocking asymptomatic lung cancer diagnosis. Now retired, she invests her time and energy to do her part to increase awareness and lobby for funding necessary for research. Here at LCFA we speak for patients and caregivers alike in thanking her for her hard work.