Lung Cancer Surviver (Kathleen Houlihan)
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No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.
In July of 1998, I noticed a pain in my left shoulder, around the shoulder blade, and it radiated down my left arm. I thought I had pulled a muscle pruning an overhead tree branch a few days before. After a couple of weeks without improvement, I went to my doctor, who said yes, it was a muscle injury. He prescribed ibuprofen and gave me some stretching exercises to do. After another month of no improvement, he sent me for physical therapy and the next month to an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon said muscle injuries like that take a long time to heal, and recommended I get an X-ray to see if anything else was going on. I didnt see why I should pay to get an X-ray for a muscle problem, so I prepared to just wait it out, taking ibuprofen the whole time for the discomfort.
In February 1999, I started coughing up bloodjust a little bit, once a day in the morning, every day. A week later, I had a fever and didnt feel good. I went to the doctor, who diagnosed a sinus infection and gave me antibiotics. I continued coughing up blood and finally got a chest X-ray in March 1999. It showed a huge, tennis-ball looking mass, confirmed by a CT scan the same day. A biopsy was scheduled for a week later, and I was finally diagnosed with lung cancer, adenocarcinoma , Stage IIIB, on March 24, 1999, at age 51. I was shocked and terrified. I had smoked for many years but had quit in 1991. I couldnt believe I had lung cancer eight years later. The oncologist I went to said it was inoperable, but we would do radiation and chemo and go for a cure. Great! But he said my odds of a cure, meaning no recurrence, were only 20%, and if it did recur, which it could at any time, there would be nothing he could do. Wow. I thought I was dead. I didnt think I would live to see the new millennium.
My husband, Holt, and I were in a daze. I looked on the Internet and everything I saw about lung cancer was grim. I saw a book on lung cancer at the bookstore, but when I pulled it off the shelf, there was a picture of a skeleton smoking a cigarette on the cover. I looked at a few of the statistics inside and put it back on the shelf. I had no hope. And I was starting to feel like I was sick. The oncologist had taken me off the ibuprofen for my shoulder pain and had given me a prescription for vicodin, which I threw up a few hours later. And my joints were starting to ache, which turned out to be a side effect of the cancer that had been masked by the ibuprofen, but at the time, I thought the cancer was spreading all over my body. I knew I was dead.
I had been a "health nut" for many years. I had been taking vitamins for 20 years, had been eating well for 10 years, had been a vegetarian for 5 yearsorganic food, reverse osmosis water, walking every day with my dogs, the whole nine yards. How could I have cancer? Holt and I figured my only hope was to "take something," some kinds of additional supplements, to improve my odds. But what? The cancer was so big, 7 by 8 cm, and was diagnosed so late, that we figured we didnt have a lot of time to become experts on this topic.
The day after my diagnosis , a friend told me about a place that had naturopathic doctors who worked together with medical oncologists, a place called Cancer Treatment Centers of America. That reminded me of an ad for CTCA that I had seen in a magazine a couple of years earlier. The day after we saw the local oncologist, I looked up their web site and all of a sudden I found hope! "No case is hopeless." "Winning the fight against cancer, every day." I wished I could go there, but I didnt think I could. I didnt think we could afford it. The next day, a Sunday, as we were trying to decide how to improve my odds, Holt asked me what I wanted to do. I blurted out "I want to go to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America." "Whats that?" he asked. Before I knew it, he was on the Internet, at CTCA web site. He agreed it looked like a great place, so he called the number for CTCA at Southwestern Regional Medical Center . They answered and had an oncology information specialist call us right back, on Sunday.
On Monday, she made all the arrangementsinsurance , plane tickets, doctors appointments, everything. We were in our room at Southwestern by 11 p.m. that same day and I started seeing doctors on
Tuesday morning, less than a week after my diagnosis. I thank God every day for CTCA and for Sharon, the oncology information specialist, who got me there, against the advice of my local oncologist!
Tuesday evening, after dinner, I was talking and exchanging stories with three other patients, and one of them put her hand on my shoulder and said "Youre going to make it." At that point, all the fear, terror, and stomach knots dissolved, and they have never come back.
I had tests that first week that showed the cancer had not spread anywhere else, thank God. The second week I started treatmentradiation twice a day (fractionated doses) and chemo once a week, to enhance the radiation. My joints hurt even more, and I was so fatigued from the radiation, that I just wanted to sleep all the time. But it was okay. I had no other responsibilities other than to get well. Meals were provided and my dear husband did everything else, including laundry. All I absolutely had to do was go to meals, go to radiation treatments (5 minutes, twice a day), go for the chemo (6 hours, once a week), and go to doctors appointments each week. Optional activities that I worked in between naps were going to classes on nutrition , naturopathy , stress management , humor therapy, etc. I kept my friends and family posted via e-mail and at Holt's urging kept taking my daily walks. Once I got moving, my joints felt better, and I know staying active contributed to my recovery. Keeping up with my vitamins (about 75 pills a day, only a couple of which were prescription, for shoulder and joint pain) also helped. It was a full schedule, but all focused on my recovery. I cant imagine what life would have been like if I had stayed at home, trying to deal with meals, laundry, dogs and all in addition to traveling 60 miles round trip every day for treatment. CTCA was MUCH better.
We were in Tulsa for 7 weeksone week of tests and 6 weeks of radiation. After that, we went back one week a month for chemo, for 5 months. Instead of getting the chemo as a "bolus", all in one 6-hour dose, it was "fractionated"the same dose was spread out over 5 days, for 6 hours each day. I never got sick. A friend undergoing the same treatment opted to have his chemo over a 3-day period, and he was sick (vomiting) for several days afterwards. He chose the 5-day period after that and never was sick again. I feel sorry for people who get chemo all in one day. I was totally wiped out, with no stamina, for several days after each chemo treatment, and I lost my hair (Its back now, curly!), but I was never sick.
By my last round of chemo in October 1999, my CEA tumor marker was in the normal range (1.5, down from 66 in March) and my tumor had shrunk down to 2.5 cm. Six month later, my tumor was gone! It had shrunk down to a scar. For the first time in over a year, I was "NED, No Evidence of Disease"!
I feel great, as I have throughout most of this ordeal. I still eat healthy, organic food and take lots of vitamins. I dont quite have all my energy back yet, but otherwise I feel perfectly normal and am leading a normal life. Every day I thank God for sending me to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Its a wonderful, healing place made truly special by its cutting-edge treatment, the "fractionated" delivery of the treatment, the many classes and services, the opportunity to meet and share stories with other cancer patients at all stages in their recoveries, and the cheerful atmosphere and attitude of the entire medical, administrative, and support staff. May God bless them all!
UPDATE, May 2003:
In the summer of 2000, about 9 months after I had finished my cancer treatment, I heard of a woman whose lung cancer had recurred after four years. She said it was okay, though, because she had been whooping it up for the whole four years. I told Dr. Ellison, my CTCA psychologist , that I wanted to do that, too, but I wasn't sure what to do to feel that I was really whooping it up. He suggested I find something I had been passionate about, maybe even as a child, and pursue it. Well, I have always loved music and always regretted that I couldn't sing. It was well known among my family and friends that I couldn't sing, and the "C" I made in 7th grade choir documented that I was not even trainable. But following Dr. Ellison's advice, I started taking singing lessons with Sue Parker, a wonderful professional musician who claims she can teach anyone to sing. Guess what? I am trainable! My first lesson, I cried the whole hour. It just felt so good to sing the notes. I don't think I'll ever sound like Julie Andrews, but I have now performed in three of the recitals Sue has for her students without embarrassing myself too much. A plaque in Sue's studio says "Don't Die with the Music Still in Ya'." Thanks to Sue, I won't.
About the same time, I noticed I was attracted to watercolor paintings at arts and crafts shows. I didn't think I could paint, but I began taking classes with Jan Hart, a professional watercolor artist, in January of 2001. I have been surprising myself and my family and friends by the paintings I have been turning out ever since. From the very beginning, Jan has had us all producing paintings we are proud of. I had always believed that I couldn't draw (from one of those charcoal drawing classes in the 5th grade) and had no artistic talent. It's not true! Thanks to Jan, I won't die with the paintings still in me, either.
Also at about the same time, I started getting more involved in my church . I began taking Bible study classes, through which I came to learn a lot more about my religion and to meet leaders at my church. I got involved in cenacle prayer groups and adult education classes, and I became a lector and rosary leader at the Sunday Masses. I now have a much greater appreciation of the importance of God in my life and in my recovery.
I don't think I would still be around, much less be involved in all of these activities, if it had not been for the "total immersion" cancer treatment and support I received, and still receive during checkups, at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Thanks to all the CTCA doctors, nurses, technicians, and staff, and thanks to the love of my husband Holt and the rest of my family and friends, I am in complete remission from my lung cancer and am living a full life.
In some ways, it's like I never had cancer. My hair is straight again and I feel like I have 99% of my energy back. Holt and I do everything we did before. We walk dogs every day, travel on occasion, hike in the canyons of Utah, visit and are visited by family and friends. But life is much richer now. Holt and I love and appreciate each other even more than before. I'm singing and painting and praying, thanking God every day for sending me to CTCA for my cancer treatment. I truly am whooping it up. Thank you, Dr. Ellison, for showing me how.
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