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

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 overburden 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 was a graphic designer in Dallas, Texas. At age 30, Laura was diagnosed with Stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the lung. Laura passed away in 2014 from related complications, seven years after her lung cancer diagnosis. We hope her story will continue to serve as inspiration for others on the importance of early detection for lung cancer.

Written by Laura McCracken and published by The Prevent Cancer Foundation ~ November 29, 2010