Thursday, June 22, 2017 was a lovely, sunny afternoon. I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary when my doctor called with the results of tests for a persistent cough I’d had for weeks. At most, I thought it might take another round of antibiotics.
My doctor told me I had stage IV non-small-cell lung cancer.
My first thought was “How could that be? I don’t even smoke!” My second thought was for my daughters, who are 8, 7 & 3 years old.
If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer.
This experience has been a very challenging time, but today I am a stronger person. I am grateful to God, my loving and supportive husband, my family, my community, my friends, and my coworkers for all the love, strength, and prayers they give me. This experience has taught me two things: If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer — and that there are many more good people in the world than I thought.
My story is also about listening to your intuition: A month before my diagnosis, I started experiencing a persistent pain in my shoulder and a light cough. I went to a nearby urgent care facility for a consultation and pain medication. The doctor on call ordered an X-ray, and concluded that I had a case of pneumonia that would take a few weeks to go away. I was given antibiotics, but as the days passed, the cough worsened.
After 3 weeks of persistent coughing and continued pain, I made an appointment with a pulmonologist who ordered another x-ray. The results showed no improvement, and the pulmonologist assured me that I just had a “bad infection.” The antibiotics should take care of it.
When the cough and pain got worse, he then ordered a CT scan of my chest. I was alarmed and concerned by the discovery of some cysts in my right lung, as well as lymph nodes and lesions in my bones.
I asked my doctor about this, and he said it was just part of the infection, but my gut told me otherwise. On June 20, I had a bronchoscopy. Two days later, my pulmonologist called me before he left on vacation to give me the devastating diagnosis of lung cancer.
The next two weeks were the most difficult of my life as I went from thinking that I had pneumonia to learning that I had stage IV lung cancer. I thought my life was over and what hurt the most was when I looked into the eyes of my three daughters.
I thought, “This is not fair! How could I do this to them? How could I cause so much pain? Would I live to see their next birthdays?” Of everything I’ve been through these past months, the most upsetting is the thought of my daughters without a mother. I pray to God every day to give me the chance to see them grow up.
In July, my doctors performed a genomic test and discovered that I have the ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) mutation. We discussed treatment options, and the benefits of what was currently available. I am now taking Alectinib, a targeted medication, that has helped prevent my cancer from spreading and has even reduced some of the tumors. It has been a miracle and I am extremely grateful to modern medicine.
I cannot emphasize this enough: If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer, ask for genomic testing to see if you have a gene mutation that’s responsive to targeted therapy.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness month. In 2017, I had the opportunity to share my story and raise awareness around the country by participating in various radio and television shows on behalf of Lung Cancer Foundation of America. This included the chance to deliver this very personal message based on my experience over the last few months:
I want people to change the way they think of lung cancer: It’s critical to understand that smokers and older people are not the only victims of this terrible disease, as initially thought. Lung cancer does not discriminate: People of all ages and backgrounds suffer from it. The perception needs to change, as this disease can happen to anyone.
During the last few months, I have grown to realize that I am not alone. Through communities on Facebook, I have met others like me who are living with the ALK mutation. Mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters — all non-smokers — share the same symptoms and feelings as me. They are also sharing their stories and, most importantly, not giving up.
Life should take your breath away, not lung cancer.
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