Lung Cancer Survivor's Story: Don't Ignore the Symptoms

November 29, 2010

I’m too busy to have cancer! With a full-time job, house, social life, dating, cycling and traveling, how do you put it all on pause for an illness? Back in 2007, I was burning the candle at both ends. I felt so tired and achy all of the time, so I stopped exercising because I didn’t have the energy. It seemed to all spiral down after that.

In August 2007, I kept having pains in my chest, but when I went to the doctor, he said maybe I hurt myself at the gym, bruised some cartilage or it might be a strain. He gave me pain pills and told me it might take some time. Nothing abnormal showed up on the x-ray. The doctors were focusing on my bones, though, not my lungs.

Scared, I desperately called an Asian medicine acupuncturist and chiropractor to ask if he could see me right away and tell what was wrong with me. He took a standing x-ray and told me that I needed to see a doctor immediately. The x-ray showed my entire chest wall was clouded white, similar to when I had pneumonia as a kid, except this was a solid, bright white.

This was Friday night and I didn’t know where to go. I ended up at an after-hours clinic. They did a white blood cell test and said it couldn’t be pneumonia, so I was sent to the emergency room. After a CT scan, an ER doctor (with great bedside manner) bluntly said that it looked like cancer and good luck!

I ended up staying in the hospital for two weeks for a series of CT scans, draining two liters of fluid from my left chest cavity (that had shown in the x-ray), chest tube, biopsy, diagnosis, port placement and hefty doses of morphine. Two weeks earlier, I had been running up a hill in San Francisco. Now I couldn’t walk up more than two stairs without starting to faint. On December 22, 2007, my chest tube was removed and I started chemo, the day before my 31st birthday. I spent my birthday vomiting from chemo nausea and lying in bed.

People with Stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the lung usually have smoked for 30 years, worked in a factory or been exposed to certain chemicals. However, I was a 30-year-old non-smoking female, who ate well and exercised. Did I happen to get this mutation of my lung cells due to some sort of damage? Was it pneumonia scarring as a kid, pollution or something I consumed? No one will ever be able to tell me.

Luckily, because I was otherwise so healthy and young, I had a lot of fight and responded well to chemo. I had a few chemo treatments and the main tumor responded, shrinking, leaving a hollow cystic shell, but then chemo stopped working. I wanted to take it to the fullest extent, but it was decided I’d switch to an oral treatment, which saved my life by binding with the receptor of my certain type of cancer cell to block it from multiplying. If I had this disease 10 years ago, I would not have had this option and might not be alive today.

I haven’t had any tumor growth since 2008, and I go in for CT or PET scans every 3-4 months. I worry about the amounts of radiation, but it’s worth it. Every time I have an ache or pain, I worry that the cancer is coming back. Ironically, when I exercise and stretch, I feel so much better. You have to keep moving and stretching! Just walking or swimming can do wonders. I’m pretty sure that I’ll deal with pain for the rest of my life, but it doesn’t keep me from doing things that I enjoy.

Based on my experience, it boils down to this: don’t over burden your life with more than you can handle and please don’t ignore symptoms if you have chronic pain. Since I “excused away” the symptoms, the cancer spread into the pleural space of my lungs and a couple of lymph nodes. If I had caught it earlier, surgery might have been an option with a 100% cure. Now I will never be officially “cured,” but I am the closest thing to being in remission as possible.

Early detection and treatment is essential to long term recovery. “Better safe than sorry” is a good rule to follow. I have great hope that I can live a long time at my current condition, thanks to the great targeted therapies, but really wish I had insisted on better x-rays or scans sooner. Regardless, I have been extremely lucky. You can’t dwell on the past with “shoulda coulda” thoughts. Deal with what you need to in the present, and try to live in the moment.

Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Laura McCracken is a graphic designer living in Dallas, Texas. At age 30, Laura was diagnosed with Stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the lung. Visit the Prevent Cancer Foundation Web site for more information about lung cancer and reducing your cancer risk.   

12 thoughts on “Lung Cancer Survivor's Story: Don't Ignore the Symptoms”

  1. Mary says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing your story! This could be similar to my husband’s case. He was a non-smoker, 33 years old and had pneumonia as a child too– so badly that the doctors had already gotten his mom to sign the organ donor paperwork. Then his fully white left lung chest x-ray showed up Sept 1, 2009– his x-ray had been completely clear August 4. He died Oct 21, 2009, after only one dose of chemo which obviously didn’t get a chance to work. He also grew up in West Virginia around the coal mines, which may have put arsenic in the water, another possible contributor to lung cancer in young people.

  2. Kaisa says:

    A powerful, yet not unfamiliar story. My boyfriend Nick died June 22, 2009 from a blood clot – Stage 4 Adenocarcinoma spread to his spine and compressed his nerves, leaving him unable to walk, even after emergency surgery. He was in physiotherapy to learn to walk again, but never got the chance. He made it through 2 rounds of chemo, which were showing promise towards remission. He was originally told that his shoulder pain was probably a pulled muscle, at one point an MRI even made it looked like a slipped disc. But after waking one day to no longer be able to move his legs, a CT scan finally showed 2 tumors. One in the lung, one on the spine. He was 27 years old, and a non-smoker. I will continue to fight the battle for him, I know he would have done everything he could to defy the odds, and help others along the way.

  3. Joe Casciola says:

    Your story is quiet inspiring! I hope that you are enjoying life to its fullest!

  4. Sarah says:

    Thank you for posting your story! My husband, 27, non-smoker, was just diagnosed with lung cancer- they think it is early stages but results aren’t conclusive yet. It’s surprising and I’m left wondering where this came from… it’s encouraging to know others have gone through it. Thank you for sharing your journey.

  5. Ganesh says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story of fighting against cancer. It has really inspired me. A week ago my mom is diagonsed with stage IIIB Lung cancer. she is 63 years old now. When we heared its cancer we all were shocked…as we were aware about cancer is like end of life. when I did some research I got some hopes that miracle can still happen. I really trust god and still keeping positive hopes and will fight till the end. Now doctor has adviced for chemotherapy and further said that they will try targeted therapy. I am hoping for best now…

  6. Ramesh says:

    Dear Laura,

    Thank you for sharing a very candid view of what you have been through and what you think about the present.
    My dad 67 was diagonsed with Stage 4, NSLC lung cancer in March 2013. (It was a metastized recurrence from his GE cancer 3 years ago that saw him get his entire stomach removed. For the last 3 years after his surgery, he was perfectly normal until the March of 2013, this year..when he started coughing (sometimes bloody) and losing weight.
    Radiation was administered for 6 weeks, followed by 4 Cycles of chemotherapy that concluded last month. For now he is fatigued and weak, down on weight and found wanting on Nutrition. However, he seems to be a little better than what he was a few months ago…but you never know. I have stopped having any kind of expectations and am taking things as they come by. However, we have (and are) giving him the best possible medication (and support) at home. This is what satisfies us.
    I am hoping (and am very positive) that he will be alright…but as i said, expectiations are the last things i do.

  7. Riza says:

    I was like you, I’m 53 though with 3 boys. I wish my fate will be like u.They just started me with Tarceva as my first line of treatment a week ago. I hope I get a good response like you and be one of those 2 percent that will be cancer free.

  8. MJ says:

    My ex husband is now 69 as of October 2013. He was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer with metastasis to the brain which is where they found it and how he was diagnosed. Miracles do happen because that was the end of February 2011. He had brain surgery as soon as he was diagnosed. He had radiation on frontal lobe and small area on lung. Fortunately, the cancer has not spread and he has been on maintenance chemo Alimta for past two years. He is having trouble in the back spine-neck area and we are praying that is not anything cancerous.

    Best to you all.

    The Good Ex-wife

  9. Nancy says:

    Thanks to all those stories of strength and survival. They have the power to support those who are now engaged in their battles as well as confirm successes, however they are measured. I am 58. In late 2008 I started having pain in my back, shoulder and arm. I went to the doctor believing that it was either pneumonia or cancer. (I was a pack-a-day smoker and had been for decades.) The doctor didn’t agree but she sent me for a chest x-ray anyway. Nothing turned up. From November 2008 to March 2009 the pain kept increasing and yet no one found anything despite taking multiple CT scans, MRIs and more X-Rays. I tried Physical Therapy, massages and kept increasing the powerful pain meds. Finally, four months after the pain started, I was in yet another doctor’s office trying to discover the reason for the pain (make it stop!!) when one of the waves of pain drove me to my knees. That doctor said — that is nerve pain. He sent me for another MRI that afternoon. Two days later I met with a doctor who read the scan. He told me that I had a large tumor at the top of my right lung – called an apical tumor or Pancoast tumor. A week later I was diagnosed as Stage IIIB non-small cell lung cancer. The tumor was so high up that it was missed on most scans. It had grown into the cluster of nerves called the Brachial Plexus, causing excruciating pain.

    Within a week I had begun simultaneous chemo and radiation – for 5 weeks. The pain was being managed by the Palliative Care folks at the hospital. They did a great job. The tumor which had begun as the size of a large apple was shrunken to the size of a large prune. I spent the next month gaining strength in order to qualify for surgery – had to pass pulmonary and cardiac tests to prove that I could survive the surgery.

    Surgery began with a mediastinoscopy – moving down the the chest to the lung, sampling and removing lymph nodes along the way and sending them to the lab to be tested. All tests (done while I was still in surgery) on lymph nodes proved negative. Fabulous news! The surgeon then carried on and spent the next 6-7 hours removing the tumor from my lung.

    Spent the summer of 2009 recuperating and recovering from the surgery. Had a final two rounds of chemo in the fall of 2009. My follow-up appointments included scans, blood test and an examination and happened every 3 months for the first 2 years then every 6 months for the next 3 years. Now, as a five-year survivor, I have appointments (scans, blood work, exam) once a year.

    My family and friends supported me throughout that year in every possible way. Cooking, cleaning, gardening, walking my dog, taking me to treatments, helping me regain my strength and continuing to honor me with their love and affection.

    I am grateful for every day granted me since the diagnosis. I thank God that he granted me this time on earth. I hope that I will continue to be cancer-free for as long as I live. There are no guarantees in life so enjoy and be thankful for every moment you are granted.

    I wish all of you — patients and caregivers and survivors — the very best health and the most fulfilled lives, whatever their length.

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