Persistent Symptoms of Pneumonia Lead to Lung Cancer Diagnosis: Karen Cunningham’s Story

Karen’s Self Diagnosis

Last spring Karen Cunningham had a lot on her plate. A full-time high school teacher, she was applying to be the English department head, raising two teenage boys, and was in the middle of the heartbreaking task of transitioning her mother to a memory care unit.  Like many others, her road to a lung cancer diagnosis was anything but direct.

A self-described English nerd, Karen looks forward to crawling into bed at night with a good book.  For several days, when she was laying down, she felt a sharp pain in her chest when she breathed deeply. She wasn’t too concerned; adjusting her position relieved the pain.  It wasn’t until one Sunday afternoon when she was grading papers and she experienced the same pain, this time accompanied by labored breathing, that she grew more concerned. She considered going to the ER but opted to check in with the on-call doctor instead.  In the time it took for the doctor to return her call, she googled her symptoms and, in an admittedly unscientific way, determined that her pain might be caused by gallstones. The on-call doctor agreed with her diagnosis. Because the Ibuprofen she’d taken had relieved the pain, she decided not go to the ER that night.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

A few days later, Karen felt awful when she arrived at school. As luck would have it, this was the same day Karen was announced the new Head of the English department. She recalls:

“Everyone was congratulating me and was so excited, but I felt awful and only wanted to go home.  I called my doctor and they gave me choice: either go to the ER or to his office immediately. “

Karen Cunningham hiking a canyon with family

Karen chose to see her doctor, who took an x-ray and performed blood work before sending her home. Just moments after walking through her door, Karen’s phone rang. Her doctor instructed her to go immediately to the ER, believing she might have an embolism. Karen, with her signature sense of humor, quipped, “Yeah, I don’t really feel like going to the ER…”

Further testing indicated Karen had fungal pneumonia, a condition with symptoms similar to lung cancer. Karen was put on medication and began to feel only a little better. Feeling irritated more than anything, Karen went about her life assured that “this is not cancer.”

Because the symptoms of her pneumonia had not subsided, her pulmonologist suggested out of caution that Karen have a lung CT scan and possible biopsy. “Nothing about this says lung cancer,” her doctor assured her.

Waiting for the school year to end

Focusing on family obligations and her dedication to the high school seniors she was seeing through to graduation, Karen decided to put off the scan and biopsy until the end of the school year. When she finally had her scan, everyone was surprised to see shadows in her lungs. Perhaps this was more than pneumonia. It was time for a tissue biopsy.

While meeting with the medical team at her mother’s memory care center, Karen’s cell phone rang.  Because she did not recognize the number, she sent the call to voicemail. The phone rang again, but it wasn’t until the third attempt from the same number that she answered.

“I am so sorry. I was wrong. You have lung cancer.”

Laughing Through Life with Lung Cancer

Things moved fast from there. Karen went in for a PET Scan and brain MRI the next morning. The diagnosis: stage 4 non-small cell adenocarcinoma with the ALK mutation to be treated with oral targeted therapy.  Karen has never asked for a prognosis.

Karen shows her spectacular sense of humor when sharing her story. Laughing, she recounted the day that the medication arrived at her home;

“It came in a huge box emblazoned with the words “biohazardous.”  I looked at it, looked at my husband and all but stomped my feet as I announced that there was no way I was going to take it.  Then I hurled the box across the room.”

But she did take the medication and today is feeling well enough to continue to work, now as the Head of the English department. Her scans look good and, while she certainly had ups and downs, she is medically stable.  Her one beef: the medication has caused her to add 10 pounds to her petite 5’ frame. She laughed generously when recounting her doctor’s response to this “complaint,”

“Um, have you seen your scans?!”

Thanks to lung cancer research, Karen’s ALK mutation was detected enabling her to be treated with oral medication. Furthermore, she was strong enough to take a once in a lifetime rafting trip in the Grand Canyon with her husband and sons. Despite her lung cancer diagnosis, Karen is so grateful to be living a full and happy life.

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