In December, 2019, one of Erin Mielke’s five children came down with flu-like symptoms. It wasn’t long before 37-year-old Erin felt under the weather as well. Both she and her daughter tested negative for the flu and were told to go home and rest. At the time, the Covid pandemic was an emerging news story. Not yet a pandemic, it was certainly not a disease for which there was testing. In hindsight, Erin, a nurse, believes she had Covid. She never thought, “Can lung cancer be mistaken for Covid?” The pandemic and the resultant shutdowns have been a blessing during her journey to her lung cancer diagnosis.

Three months following her suspected Covid infection, Erin continued to struggle with breathing. Walking a flight of stairs was enough to pose a problem. Erin started to think something else – perhaps a Covid issue – was going on. At the urging of her family and colleagues, she decided to see her primary care physician.

Flu, Covid, Pneumonia? Testing to Find Out

In mid-March, 2020, and, despite having no blood work, x rays or scans, Erin’s doctor diagnosed her with pneumonia. A week later, an x ray showed that, along with several inflamed lymph nodes in her chest, her blood cultures were highly elevated. The radiologist who read the imaging recommended a CT scan.

Covid was not the culprit. The CT scan would show masses in Erin’s right lung. This prompted a visit to a pulmonologist who ordered a PET scan and performed a bronchoscopy. The masses were malignant, and the scan revealed two other spots on the right side of her lung.

Make No Mistakes – Biomarker Testing Makes a Difference

Fortunately for Erin, the medical team immediately sent samples of her tumor out for biomarker testing. Diagnosis: stage 4 ALK+ non small cell lung cancer

Although biomarker testing has become much more routine over the past several years, it is not automatically or routinely done immediately upon diagnosis. Over time, the research has shown just how valuable the specifics of a patient’s particular tumor are in determining appropriate and potentially life saving treatments. The fact that her team acted quickly and with forethought put Erin in an excellent position to receive a targeted and effective treatment plan.

On the Friday of Mother’s Day weekend, just a few weeks after her diagnosis, Erin started on a targeted inhibitor where she takes four pills, twice a day. Within the month, and with no side effects, Erin felt markedly better. Breathing better, Erin was keeping up with her young children better than she had in a long time.

How to be Cancer-Free on Your Birthday

Despite feeling good and tolerating the medication well, a follow up PET scan in February, 2021 showed that one of the spots on the side of Erin’s right lung had grown back. The day before her birthday, she underwent surgery to have the spots removed. When asked why she chose that day, she responded with a chuckle, “that way I knew I would spend my birthday cancer free!”

When an organ lights up on imaging, it is often an indication that cancer cells are living and growing in that organ. So, when in May, Erin’s liver lit up on her PET scan, concern grew. A liver MRI, however would come back clear and all was well…until August 2021 when scans showed evidence of renewed activity in Erin’s lung.

Avoiding Any Mistake For The Next Treatment

At the time, there was a lot of discussion about Erin undergoing a major surgical procedure to remove a mass that was dangerously close to an artery. In lieu of that, the doctors decided to, instead, change the medications Erin had been taking to see if a newer medication would help to inhibit further growth. Erin now takes one pill, once a day and is considered stable. It is thanks to research and ongoing developments in medical protocols that Erin, a stage 4 lung cancer patient is not only surviving but thriving.

It was not until Covid was under slightly better control, and the world slowly started going back to some degree of normalcy, that Erin’s experience began to sneak up on her, leaving her feeling lonely, isolated, and depressed. On days that have felt particularly difficult, she started reaching out to other lung cancer patients through online sites. She acknowledges that, while often she was able to draw strength from other people’s stories, others left her feeling overwhelmed and disheartened.

“I got this for a reason, although I don’t know what the reason is. Between the Covid shutdowns and my cancer diagnosis, I decided to stop working and be at home with my kids – who now range in age from 3-14 -which was a blessing. For those early months of Covid and my diagnosis, as we were all forced to be together all the time, it strengthened our family, we stuck together.”

Can lung cancer be mistaken for Covid?

The International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC) researchers have published an article that showed that some CT Findings of COVID-19 mimic pneumonia and other diseases in patients with lung cancer. Many patients are misdiagnosed initially and may go through unnecessary treatments before getting a correct diagnosis. Thanks, in no small part, to an accurate diagnosis, immediate biomarker testing, and targeted therapies, Erin is feeling well and has a new appreciation for life – especially after her recent trip to Hawaii.

“Since my diagnosis, I have learned to seize the day and open my eyes to life. I realized I had not appreciated what I had and, more importantly, that life is short.”

Can lung cancer be mistaken for Covid? Since they are both diseases in the lungs, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis – get tested for Covid, and report any symptoms or concerns to your healthcare provider.