Terry Gillespie was no stranger to sinus infections. Every year she found herself with one which, once treated with antibiotics, went away. Toward the end of 2003, however, she went to the doctor with what she thought was a particularly bad infection. A chest x-ray meant to rule out pneumonia and TB, however, told a different story. Terry had what she was told was inoperable, stage 3b lung cancer. She was adamant that the doctors not give her a prognosis. Instead, her directive to them was simple:
Not content to accept that there was nothing that could be done, Terry visited close to a dozen oncologists, all of whom agreed that stage 3b lung cancer was too advanced to treat, let alone cure. It wasn’t until she visited a surgeon who not only felt he could help, but told her, “if you were my wife, I’d schedule surgery,” that she did just that. Soon after, Terry had her left lung removed.
Life with only one lung presents challenges, for sure. When Terry first returned home from her surgery, she was unable to walk from the sofa to the bathroom. Over time, she was finally strong enough to begin rehab and slowly regained some of the strength she had lost.
“You have to live life. Sure there are bumps in the road, but you need to enjoy what you have…I do what I can.”
It was not all smooth sailing, though. During her surgery, Terry’s left vocal cord was damaged to such an extent that she was unable to speak. It required another surgery to repair. Even after this surgery, and for two years following, she spoke at such a low register that no one could hear her. At the same time, in order to ensure that any free-floating cancer cells were destroyed, Terry received the maximum amount of radiation deemed medically safe. It was an extraordinarily difficult period in her life.
From patient to advocate
Not one to sit around feeling sorry for herself, as soon as she was strong enough, Terry immediately became a mentor to other lung cancer patients. She was a rare breed in the mentoring/advocacy community; because she had been a smoker, Terry was willing to not only acknowledge, but actively discuss the tremendous stigma surrounding lung cancer.
Sadly, of the 200 patients she mentored, all but one has passed away.
Several years after losing a lung and regaining her voice, Terry wanted to knock something off her bucket list: she was finally going to get herself the motorcycle she’d always dreamed of owning. Once she had earned her license to drive one, however, she was still too weak to move the bike herself. She laughs at the memory of the driving instructors wheeling the bike over to her and helping her to climb aboard. She’s been riding it ever since. That was 7 years ago…which was 8 years after her diagnosis of stage 3b lung cancer.
The “miracle child”
Years after her diagnosis, Terry’s family shared information with her that she never knew; back in September of 2003, the doctors were certain that she would not make it to her birthday in January. Not only did she make it to that birthday, but she just recently celebrated 15 years NED (no evidence of disease), works as an advocate for both the FDA and the Department of Defense, and is still tooling around Chicago on her motorcycle. It’s no wonder her medical team considers her their “miracle child.”
In the fifteen years since Terry’s stage 3b lung cancer diagnosis, advances in both the understanding of and treatments available to lung cancer patients render her, in her words, a “dinosaur”, but in the best way possible. Terry’s story is Hope in a nutshell. New advances in lung cancer Research are helping to prolong Life. This has been true for Terry and others living with lung cancer.