A shocking Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis
January 2014 was Harris Watkins’ final semester of college. When he told his mom, Patty about a job interview in Nashville – a three-hour drive from his hometown of Atlanta – she suggested that they turn it into a road trip. They would visit with her mom/Harris’s grandmother and spend some mother/son time together. While in Nashville, Patty got a pain in her calf which quickly became agonizing. For the entirety of the ride back to Atlanta, she felt as though her leg was on fire. Immediately upon arriving home, she took herself to the emergency room.
When it was discovered that she had a blood clot, she was given Heparin (an anticoagulant medication) and sent home. Two weeks later, she once again experienced the same pain in the same leg, except this time it was higher up. Again, she went to the ER. When she woke up, she’d had surgery and was not only told that she had Stage 4 Lung Cancer, but that she had just days to live. Patty, aged 57 and never having smoked, was near death.
A promise to her family
At the time of her diagnosis, Harris was a senior in college and her daughter Chelsea had just graduated. Things were so dire that the doctor suggested to Patty’s husband Kent that they call the children home and get their affairs in order. As she lay in bed heavily medicated, with tubes keeping her alive and a machine pumping 15 liters of oxygen per minute into her body, Patty listened as the pulmonologist told Kent,
“You will never bring her home. Find a nice hospice.”
At that moment, Patty made a decision that she was going to fight like hell. This was not going to take her down and she was, she promised herself, going to be at Harris’s college graduation in May. And, against all odds – she was there.
That was five years ago.
Her oncologist joins the fight
Those months – from January until May – were largely spent in the hospital. Her ascension back to health began with her oncologist who took a page from Patty’s playbook and decided he, too, was going to fight like hell to bring her back to health. Much to the displeasure of his colleagues who believed Patty’s disease was too far gone to treat, he decided to begin chemotherapy immediately. His insistence paid off. Then, in a move that was still in its infancy, he sent her tumor off for biomarker testing which revealed that she was ROS1 positive. This discovery enabled Patty to be given targeted therapy which she credits with saving her life.
But it was not all smooth sailing. Just shy of two years after her diagnosis, Patty noticed that she was walking sideways while on the treadmill. She admits to not thinking much of it. It wasn’t until her doctor observed her unbalanced gait that he sent her for an immediate brain MRI. Patty’s lungs were free of disease, but her brain was not. Nine tumors turned into 19, turned into close to 30. Brain radiation was not eradicating the disease. When her medical team recommended whole brain radiation, Patty had two words:
Patty’s research leads to a clinical trial
Patty researched her situation and learned of a clinical trial in Boston. She spent the next three months awaiting approval, but it proved, in the end, to be worth the wait. Within six months, every tumor in her brain was gone. It wasn’t until last month that an errant cell appeared. It has been “zapped” and they are taking the wait and see approach to its growth.
In the five years since her diagnosis, Patty has seen much joy. Not only did Harris graduate from college, but he was married in 2017. Her daughter Chelsea made her a grandmother – Lovey – when she welcomed baby Chase to the family earlier this year.
She’s also had a lot of time to reflect.
“I don’t know if I would be here if that doctor hadn’t suggested hospice. When he said that, the human spirit soared and the “oh, hell no” attitude kicked in. Kent and I worked too hard to see our kids do well and I was going to be there to enjoy it. Everyone is fighting a battle of some sort…mine’s no worse than anyone else’s.”
Patty’s fight as a lung cancer advocate
No story about Patty would be complete without mention of her incredible work as a lung cancer advocate. Not only did she do a 20-story repel off a building in Atlanta’s financial district, but she has personally raised over $100,000 and was the winner of Team Draft Super Bowl Challenge raising $61,000 with a Pearls Luncheon attended by nearly 150 women. Here at LCFA we are thrilled to have Patty serve as a member of our Speaker’s Bureau and are grateful for tireless work to raise awareness and funds to find a cure for lung cancer.