Lung cancer treatments have come a long way over the past couple of decades. Ongoing research has led to new medications and treatment protocols. Years ago, a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis was often considered a death sentence. Not so today. Today, many patients given a stage IV diagnosis, through the miracle of research and science, find themselves NED (no evidence of disease.) Due to the strength of some of these treatments, however, the patient often faces residual effects. Missy Petersen is one such patient who has had more than her fair share of challenges after radiation treatment for lung cancer.
In 2008, Missy Petersen was a 42-year-old married mom with two small boys, a kindergarten teacher, and a Boot Camp class aficionado. In fact, the teacher of the class with a group of friends often commented on what a great job Missy was doing. She was strong, and focused. So, it came as a great surprise when she found herself unable to keep up with the class.
Annoyed by a small cough and an increased awareness of breathing trouble, Missy went to see her primary care physician who diagnosed her with asthma and prescribed an inhaler to relieve her symptoms, When the inhaler proved useless against her breathing difficulty, further testing was ordered. An MRI showed more than 30 lesions on her brain, She was then diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
A few months later, Missy lost her ability to speak. The culprit was vocal cord paralysis, something that stumped the doctors. Because she was not only unable to speak, but there was a grave danger of her choking as a result of the paralysis, Missy underwent vocal cord infusion surgery. This procedure successfully repaired the issue, although her voice is still not functioning at full capacity: a huge disappointment to Missy who loves to sing.
“I was blessed that my husband accompanied me to every infusion and appointment. The nurses were shocked by his dedication. Family members helped parenting for a while. From the get go, my 6- and 8-year-old sons were told exactly what was going on. They even shaved my hair off before it fell out.”
Thinking her situation was under control, she soon discovered that was not the case. In June of 2009 – about 6 months after her initial symptoms appeared – Missy wound up in the emergency room with excruciating back and chest pain. Because the x-ray showed nothing in her lungs, she was treated as though she’d had a heart attack. After being admitted to the hospital, the physicians ordered further, more specialized scans. She did not have multiple sclerosis. Nor did she have a heart attack. Missy had lesions in her lungs, brain, hip, and chest lymph nodes: Non Small Cell Lung Cancer, Stage 4.
Radiation Treatment for Lung Cancer Stage 4
Missy would go on to spend over a week inpatient. Her oncologist told her that treatment had to begin immediately and aggressively. The prediction was that she might have only six months to live. The good news was that because she was young and fit she had a slight edge in terms of successful treatment.
Missy has six weeks of whole brain and chest radiation, followed by chemotherapy infusions. At that time, there was no genomic testing. Later, Missy would learn that she carried the ALK+ mutation, which would stand to aid in her further treatment protocol.
“During that most painful time, after coming home without any relief, the only thing that got me through was closing my eyes praying, chanting Psalm 23. Hours and hours, days and days, I barely got out of bed. I couldn’t eat because of the chemo. My weight plummeted to below 100 pounds. I received an outpouring of over 200 cards: from students, parents, friends and people I didn’t even know saying they were praying for me. In an attempt to help me breathe, I was on dangerous levels of steroids. My face was so puffed up from those steroids that I was unrecognizable. With no hair or eyebrows I refused to see most visitors. ”
Missy remained stable until 2012. At that point, scans revealed a new lesion. Her husband, ever the outstanding cheerleader, insisted that genomic testing needs to happen. The test results returned with the tumor having the ALK+ biomarker. She received CyberKnife treatments. Then her oncologist prescribed an oral medication that has only been FDA-approved six months prior. She has remained on that medication ever since.
What Happens After Radiation Treatment for Lung Cancer Stage 4
Radiation is often referred to as the gift that keeps on giving. Due to the extensive radiation that Missy endured, she has struggled with some challenging issues. In 2012, intense chest pain brought her to the emergency room. Doctors diagnosed Missy with a pericardial effusion – a buildup of extra fluid around the heart. Doctors quickly drained this fluid and provided immediate relief.
Then, in 2013, Missy, literally overnight, lost her ability to hear in her right ear. Soon after that, again crippled by intense chest pain, an emergency room physician did an angiogram. This test revealed a nearly 100% blocked artery. After surgery inserting two stents into the main vessel, her doctor controls Missy’s heart issues with statins, blood thinners, and anti-clotting medication.
It would be six years before Missy again suffered from unbearable chest pain. Her first – and hopefully last – ambulance ride ended up with a better ending. Her body was able to do what it is meant to do with this pericardial effusion dissipated on its own.
Personalized Therapy, Faith and Research
Now, in 2021, Missy is happily teaching – something she continued to do throughout her cancer journey. While she remains on both heart and cancer medications, scans this past summer revealed no evidence of cancer!
“When I finally came home from the hospital, driving up the Pacific Coast Highway I noticed how beautiful the sky was, how happy people looked, it was a moment I will always remember. Today, my heart is healthy and my family and I were able to travel across England with my son who is studying there. I was blessed to go.
Blessed to still be able to teach little newbie kindergartners, I am blessed to be alive. Why, I’m the lucky one, I may never know.”
Despite the myriad health issues that have arisen after her radiation treatment for lung cancer, Missy is alive and thriving. While still an imperfect science – one that treats aggressively yet yields issues following radiation – the ongoing research is truly saving lives.