Lung Cancer Survivor

Ignore Statistics and Think Positive

Melinda and Paul Dunn had plenty in common when they married, including the workplace where they met. Now more than 30 years later, they’re survivors of different types of Stage IV cancer, supporting each other every step of the way. Their advice: Ignore statistics and make plans.

 

Busy taking courses to get into an MBA program in 2012, I noticed I was often short of breath. My dad had died in his 50s of a heart attack, so I saw a cardiologist. To my surprise, the CT scan showed a mass in my left lung. Within a week, I was diagnosed with Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer and told I had maybe another year to live. I was 58.

This news was alarming, but my husband, Paul, and I had been through this before. He had already survived Stage IV melanoma for 22 years after a prognosis as grim as mine. His last recurrence was in 2002.

His experience profoundly changed how I view cancer survival statistics. Those numbers are averages based on groups of people in the past, so they have nothing to do with me personally. By example, my husband taught me how to approach my serious illness: I ignore survival rate statistics, refuse to let cancer consume or define me and look ahead to the future by making plans.

So that’s how we’ve rolled. We plan around my treatment schedule to travel to South America, Scotland, England, San Francisco, New Orleans, wine regions and elsewhere. I planned a different life course to focus on giving back, including volunteering twice a week teaching English to adults new to the country. We also made changes to our house to provide a comfortable, stable home for my elderly mother who had early-stage dementia in her last years.

A major cancer center in a nearby city was familiar territory from Paul’s check-ups, so that’s where I’ve established my happy family of caregivers. I began with the “platinum treatment,” a combination of three platinum-based chemotherapy drugs that was the standard of care. I responded without progression for two and a half years. I’m what’s called a “high responder,” meaning I respond well to certain treatments because of the particular makeup of my tumor cells.

When chemotherapy was no longer effective, biomarker testing showed my tumor was positive for the BRAF gene mutation. That made me eligible for a clinical trial evaluating a targeted therapy developed for that mutation. I took lots of pills, up to eight a day, through fever spikes and near-crippling muscle pain while my dosage was adjusted. After a few months, my oncologist announced my lungs were clear for the first time since undergoing treatment. Hallelujah! Targeted therapy bought me another two years before cancer returned to the lung and moved farther into my spine.

We turned to immunotherapy, a type called an immune checkpoint inhibitor. I got an IV infusion every other week at first, then after a while, just once a month. It was so easy, and the entire process took less than an hour.

Cancer treatments almost always come with side effects. Getting three chemotherapy drugs at once would wipe me out, and I could barely get out of bed afterward. Immunotherapy damaged my thyroid, so I take thyroid medication. I’ve been on and off steroids to manage lung inflammation. Acid reflux, which makes my esophagus feel raw, is another side effect. Early-stage heart congestion may or may not be treatment-related.

Being realistic, I knew the immunotherapy drug would run its course, too. That’s just the nature of the beast with metastatic cancer. I get scans like clockwork, and if we see progression, we know the treatment has likely done all it can for me. After two and a half years on the checkpoint inhibitor, a scan showed an active spot on my left lung. My doctor recommended moving to a targeted therapy treatment of two different medications taken as pills. I’m so thankful I have options because I figure all I need is something new coming down the pike every two or three years.

As a lung cancer support phone volunteer, I make it my mission to give people hope. Sometimes callers say they just want to cry. I tell them, “Of course you do. You have every right to cry.” But then I gently try to move their outlook to a more positive light. The important thing is to have more good days when you’re positive than bad days when you cry. Personally, I feel so very fortunate for this gift of additional time, seven years so far. I can spend it being miserable about having cancer, or I can be grateful, positive and hopeful about my life.

We’re incredibly lucky to live in an era of rapidly evolving cancer research and expanding treatment options. Researchers and scientists are essentially changing what it means to be diagnosed with lung cancer.

 

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