In May 2018, I was a 29-year-old mom at the beginning of my third trimester of my second pregnancy. A few years before, I’d been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that can cause unintended weight loss. So when I stopped gaining weight as quickly as I had with my first pregnancy, my doctor and I figured that was the easiest explanation.
But a few months later, in the middle of August 2018, I woke up with severe chest pain. I couldn’t breathe or move without excruciating pain. My husband had already left for work, so I took our 2-year-old daughter to school and then Googled my symptoms. I called my ob-gyn and primary care physician, and they told me the same thing: Go to the ER immediately.
After a chest x-ray, the doctor came in and told me I had a calcified granuloma—a small, typically benign (noncancerous) spot of inflammation often caused by infection—in the lower part of my left lung. In most cases, these don’t cause any symptoms. Everything else was clear, so the doctor diagnosed me with lung pain from pregnancy and sent me on my way. Basically, he believed that my chest pain was a normal response to the pressure of carrying a growing baby.
In October 2018, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. A month later, my husband bought me a Peloton bike and I hopped on as soon as I was cleared to exercise again. For three months, I biked just about every day and then fell off a bit when I went back to work in February 2019.
During my lunch break, I hopped on my Peloton for a 15-minute ride, just a get-it-done sort of workout. But it was very, very difficult. As a former collegiate basketball player at a Division 1 school, I’d never had such a difficult time exercising. I thought, Oh my god, I have never been this out of shape in my life!
It was this light, pinkish-red color. I looked at my husband and said, “Oh, shit.” The next morning, the same thing happened. I called my doctor and went in for an appointment. She listened to my lungs and, shockingly enough, she said they sounded okay. I had a little shortness of breath, but she couldn’t hear anything off. She figured I probably had an infection like bronchitis, and my lungs were just inflamed. She prescribed an antibiotic and told me to come back if I was still having symptoms in ten days.
Within about three days, I’d stopped coughing up blood and, while my cough didn’t go away completely, it wasn’t an all-day annoyance, either. I thought about going back to the doctor, but I had an appointment scheduled for the next week anyway, so I postponed it a little. Hindsight is 20/20, but it was Derby Week (a big deal where I lived in Louisville, Kentucky), and I wanted to enjoy my weekend. So I pushed through it.
But then I started coughing up blood again. Not to get too gross, but the consistency changed. It started out light pink, not all that much. Now, it was a brighter red color and I was coughing up gobs that were about the size of two quarters. This sucks, I thought. Guess I just need stronger antibiotics?
On Monday morning, I went in to see my PCP again and she was pretty baffled. I mentioned that I’d been losing more weight than I expected, too. I was postpartum—so some weight loss was normal—but I seemed to be slimming down faster than I had after my first pregnancy.
After a variety of tests and scans, they finally referred me to a pulmonologist, who performed a bronchoscopy to look at my lungs and collect samples. For the first time, I worried I really could have lung cancer. I had a gut feeling that it was bad.
I remember the doctor told me I needed to sit down. He said he was sorry to do this over the phone, but we had to start figuring everything out ASAP in order to cure my cancer. I texted my husband. I made the doctor call him to give him the details. Beyond that, I hardly remember anything. I think I blacked out.
After a bunch of tests, scans, and a second opinion, I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer that had spread to my liver and my bones. I had three spots on my spine, rib cage, and pelvis.
When the doctor shared the news, he was visibly shaking and upset. To anyone outside of that room, I looked like a healthy 30-year-old. Like most people, when I heard “lung cancer,” I thought of smoking. I had never smoked a cigarette a day in my life. I didn’t feel like the typical metastatic lung cancer patient. I was numb.
My oncologist suggested I get comprehensive genomic profiling (CGP) to help identify what genetic mutations I had, so that my doctors could better plan my course of treatment. About three weeks after my diagnosis, my test results showed that I had ALK-positive (anaplastic lymphoma kinase positive, or ALK+) lung cancer. Of all patients with non-small-cell lung cancer (the most common form), only about one in 25 are ALK-positive. Patients with ALK-positive lung cancer tend to be like me—younger people who have never smoked.
The ALK mutation causes your lung cells to grow abnormally like cancer cells and, in time, they can also spread to other parts of your body. Compared to other mutations that cause cancer to grow, ALK is generally more treatable and often responds really well to targeted therapy, like taking a pill that blocks the action of this mutation to stop the spread of cancer cells. This beat the alternative we’d been considering: traditional chemotherapy.
Although I had no idea what ALK-positive meant before that meeting, I learned that this was quite literally the first good news we’d received since my diagnosis. My doctor explained that there was a pill I could take, and anticipated it could work for years for me. This was really great news—a silver lining. For the first time, we had hope. I started taking the targeted therapy drug right away, and I remain on it today.
In July 2019, a few months after my diagnosis, I got a scan that showed no evidence of disease. In spring of 2020, my cancer came back, but after chemotherapy there was no evidence of disease again as of December 2020.
Today, I continue to take pills for targeted therapy, but otherwise I’m back to living a pretty normal life. When you look at me, you probably see a healthy, 31-year-old mom of two who might just be a little tired because, well, she has two kids that keep her busy.
I didn’t think cancer could happen to me at age 29. Although I knew it didn’t make sense for a 15-minute bike ride to be so difficult, I never could have imagined I had lung cancer.
As young and healthy women, we often brush off odd symptoms and get brushed off by doctors. But if you think something’s wrong or notice your fitness level isn’t where it should be, it doesn’t hurt to get checked out and follow up until you figure out what’s going on. Keep pushing to get the answers and treatment that you need.
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