Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Heart and Lungs

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

I was not aware of this until recently, when my own life was touched by this disease.

My cancer, the carcinoid or neuroendrocrine tumor, is one of the rarest types of cancers and an even rarer form of lung cancer. Nonetheless, I have undergone much of the same treatment as any lung cancer patient does, including surgery and now radiation therapy. I am very fortunate that the type of lung cancer I have is not nearly as aggressive as the other more common types of lung cancer and I am even more fortunate that my tumor was found relatively early and with only local lymph nodes being affected.

Although my journey so far has not been easy, and I have no clue what the future holds for me and my health, I do learn each and everyday that I am extremely lucky. My tumor was found accidentally. I had no symptoms, no pneumonia, no breathing troubles, no pain, nothing. I coughed up a little blood one afternoon and freaked out. My doctor did a chest x-ray and without warning I was thrust into the sometimes terrifying world of cancer. I heard words I never imagined I'd ever hear in my life, let alone at age 27. Biopsy. Metastases. Pneumonectomy. Carcinoid. Rare. And was ultimately told, "You need to go to a cancer hospital."

I arrived at M.D. Anderson blissfully in denial about having cancer. No one had said cancer yet. I had a carcinoid. Even so, I went through with all the procedures and scans and was a compliant and pleasant patient. (One of my doctors even used that word to describe me in one of his notes.) I was experiencing so much for the first time and was sometimes strangely in awe of it all.

At M.D. Anderson, I was told just how extensive my situation was and just how rare. The doctors and nurses and techs who treated me were so surprised and intrigued by my case. They said it was "unique." Yeah, I guess it was unique. I was walking around with a collapsed lung and a massive slow-growing tumor in my left lung, an enlarged lymph node partially blocking my right airway and yet another lymph node protruding on my aortic arch. Yet, I felt nothing.

In the last few months, I have done stuff I never thought I would do. I underwent a major surgery, let them take my left lung (who does that?), endured potentially life threatening complications and am now in the process of completing my proton therapy. I will find out in December if it worked and then move forward from there. I will get scanned on a regular basis to see if things improve or worsen. I don't know what the next step is yet...and that's okay for now.

Prior to all of this, I never considered the possibility that I would get cancer. People my age didn't get cancer. I was healthy. I was constantly trying to improve my eating habits, trying to exercise more and kept telling myself that I didn't want to face illnesses like diabetes or high blood pressure when I was older, so I needed to get healthy. I did the monthly breast exams, had annual physicals and went to the doctor whenever anything wasn't right. But cancer, let alone lung cancer never crossed my mind. And yet, I have cancer. Anyone can have cancer.

At the present moment, my life revolves around cancer. I think about it daily and am surrounded by cancer of all shapes and sizes. Children, young men, old men, young women, old women, there are so many people in this place affected by cancer. I find it difficult to understand at times. I have learned to cope and not question my cancer. Why I have it doesn't matter. I will never know what particular moment this cancer started and I won't know what could have prevented it, if anything. But I do question cancer. Why do so many people suffer with this disease?

I know that much of the cancer research out there seeks a cure, prevention, a way to keep this disease from ever happening. We are good at fighting it and killing it and can make people better sometimes. People outlive what their doctors expect, and yet others succumb to the disease. In my researching and reading over the past few months, I've learned some simple things: We don't always know how or why cancer happens, and early detection is the best chance for a cure and survival. Sadly, for many people the cancer will happen...finding it before it spreads or causes symptoms is how you stop it.

So how do you do that? Awareness. Not just awareness about the fact that cancer exists, but awareness about the fact that it can exist in us no matter how young, old, healthy, funny, beautiful, smart, dumb, wealthy or poor we are. I don't think people should live in an unhealthy state of fear thinking about cancer at every moment. But I do think that people should be aware of it enough to not ignore symptoms, even the most innocuous. For doctors to be aware enough to thoroughly screen patients, even those who don't fit the "cancer profile." I didn't fit the "lung cancer profile" and my doctor could have easily said there was nothing for me to worry about and I would have gone on with my life and not given it a second thought. How many other people have that scenario happen to them, only to discover months or years later that they have an advanced, inoperable, incurable cancer. There are no screenings for lung cancer. A simple chest x-ray at your annual physical can detect anything out of the ordinary, even if you have no symptoms. This needs to become a part of routine check ups and insurances need to pay for them.

Lung Cancer carries with it an additional stigma, that only smokers get it. Yes, smokers can get cancer, but not all of them do. (And even if they do, they do not deserve to be blamed.) Non-smokers get lung cancer, too. (I did.) Children get lung cancer. (I know of several with advanced and aggressive cancers.) Sometimes women who have taken hormone replacement therapy get lung cancer. People who are exposed to hazardous chemicals and fumes get lung cancer. People get lung cancer.

This blog post is my tiny little part to raise awareness. I am by no means an expert, and I know that many factors contribute the lack of early detection, including the horrific state of the healthcare system in this country. I do know that I don't want any more people to go through what I've gone through, or to endure worse. So even though it's scary, don't ignore that cough that doesn't go away, that pneumonia that lasts and lasts, that breathing trouble, and ask for an x-ray, or better yet, a CT Scan. This is true for all types of cancers, the sooner we find the troublesome spots, the precancerous cells, the small and localized tumors, the less people will suffer and the longer people will survive. For me, this is the only way to win when it comes to cancer.

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