Doctors Can Get Lung Cancer Too

Dr. Barned is a doctor of internal medicine, a hospitalist, and, since the onset of Covid, a staple on the oncology unit of Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. The idea that doctors can get lung cancer wasn’t on her radar, yet she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2017. Thanks to targeted treatment, Dr. Barned has been NED (no evidence of disease) for the past several years.

From the time she was a child growing up in Jamaica, Dr. Barned was bursting with energy. She studied ballet, ran track, swam on swim teams, and was a seasoned 5k runner. Dr. Barned was 32 years old, in the throes of working in an Emergency Room in Jamaica, and applying for a residency in the United States when she began to notice that her exercise tolerance was nowhere near what it had been. She found herself huffing and puffing—and wondering why.

Dr Sydney Barned shares her lung cancer story

She was not overly concerned until other unusual symptoms began to appear. In early 2016, Dr. Barned had two consecutive nights of waking in the middle of the night out of breath and feeling as though the left side of her chest wasn’t working properly. She asked a colleague to order a chest x-ray to see what was going on. A large white area appeared on the films and Dr. Barned was diagnosed with walking pneumonia. Already on steroids for an unrelated rash, the hope was that the symptoms would resolve and Dr. Barned would be on her merry way.

She Was Overworked and Didn’t Follow Up

A couple of months later, she recalls thinking to herself that the pneumonia was taking a long time to resolve. She was feeling better, so she assumed all was okay. Dr. Barned then began her residency where she was working 80 hour weeks, and by her own admission, did not follow up, Then, a few months later, she began wheezing when she was around noxious odors at the hospital. Having a very strong history of asthma she began using an inhaler, with thoughts to follow up with a Pulmonologist. Feeling better enough, she delayed going due to the time commitments of residency.

A Lung Cancer Diagnosis for the Doctor

Early in 2017, Dr. Barned found herself coughing up blood. After visiting a pulmonologist, she had another chest x-ray. On a night float rotation at this time, she finished call and did the x-ray before going home to sleep. On returned to work, she took a moment to check the patient portal. The image looked great and she was able to see the bottom of her lung, which had been shaded in all the prior imaging. However the report read: “small lower left lobe consolidation.” It was then that she knew something was in her chest.

She requested a new CT to compare to the films with the mis-diagnosed pneumonia. The new CT showed a mass compressing the airway. This, it was believed, explained the wheezing. Although the doctors were not terribly concerned and felt strongly that it was likely benign, Dr. Barned underwent a bronchoscopy. When she awoke, the doctor reported that they discovered a friable tumor – a nasty, frail, and very unstable tumor. Up until this moment, no one had mentioned the possibility of lung cancer. Dr. Barned was stunned.

The doctors were very optimistic, but Dr. Barned was able to read between the lines. On February 8, 2017 – a full year after the onset of symptoms – the results came back. Dr. Barned had lung cancer.

The Doctor’s Lung Cancer Takes the Stage

Her pulmonologist referred her to a surgical oncologist at John Hopkins as she initially believed that they were dealing with a stage one diagnosis. A second bronchoscopy, however, revealed a positive lymph node. This discovery elevated Dr. Barned’s cancer to stage 3. Further examination of the pleura – a thin layer of tissue that covers the lungs and lines the interior wall of the chest cavity which protects and cushions the lungs – looked good.

Dr. Sydney Barned is living with lung cancer.

The original treatment plan was for chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, followed by a lobectomy – the surgical removal of a lobe of the lung. Just days later, that protocol would change, however. Further investigation and biomarker testing showed that Dr. Barned’s lung cancer was, in fact, stage four. Her lung cancer was also positive for the ALK biomarker. Unfortunately, it was also inoperable. Instead of chemotherapy, she was prescribed a targeted therapy.

The targeted therapy drugs will inhibit her cancer from growing. Dr. Barned will need to take them for the rest of her life. In a heartbreaking turn, Dr. Barned learned that the medication is teratogenic (deadly to a growing fetus). She and her partner were devastated. They decided to get married two weeks later and have her eggs frozen so that her dream of becoming a mother might someday be realized.

Dr. Barned responded very well to the treatment, was able to complete her residency on time, and has been NED for the past five years. She reports feeling fine, and fortunate.

Should I Save for Retirement as a Doctor With Lung Cancer?

“I’ve seen so many people not as lucky as me. This diagnosis brings up so many things that people don’t talk about: Do I save for retirement? Do I buy a house? As a lung cancer patient, I have had to navigate all the things that can go wrong, putting me in a constant state of limbo.”

Although she is an internal medicine physician and hospitalist, at the start of Covid until now, she has been working in the oncology unit. She admits to asking to be put somewhere other than oncology. But Dr. Barned has come to appreciate the special perspective she is able to share with her patients.

“Some patients remind me of myself and my journey. Others remind me of all the possible complications that come with being a cancer patient. But I do deeply understand what many of my patients are going through. I’ve shared my story with some patients, and I know they are appreciative. I’ve been every single phase: diagnosis, treatment, chemotherapy, radiation, complications, hospice, and death. It is so humbling. I am lucky that I am well and I need to help others.”

Dr. Barned is the newest member of our Speaker’s Bureau. She is looking forward to sharing her experiences and helping to make a difference in the lives of other cancer patients. Lung cancer can affect anyone and everyone – everyone with lungs that is. Truly no person is exempt from the possibility of a lung cancer diagnosis. Even doctors can get lung cancer too!

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