By Ide Mills
The day after Thanksgiving in 2010 I saw my internist for discomfort in my throat that I couldn’t clear. She thought allergies, while I thought everything else, BUT cancer. Over the next few months, it became increasingly more difficult to complete a sentence without being short of breath. I was sent for a chest x-ray. I knew I had cancer when my internist called to tell me the test results – “there was something in my lungs.”
Both lungs were involved. Two and half months later, I was admitted to the hospital to treat my breathing difficulties and begin a complete work-up. That’s when I learned the disease had spread to my bones and the cancer had advanced to stage IV.
I was devastated – thinking about the treatment I would receive, terrified I would die from the disease within three years – the length of time my mother lived battling lung cancer. All I could think was I wouldn’t grow old with my husband nor see my children (17 and 21 years old) mature in their lives.
Thankfully it only took two and a half months for the doctors to determine the problem. The molecular tests of my cancer were not conclusive for ALK at diagnosis. I began chemo for six cycles and did additional testing.
The tumor was ALK+, which has given me more treatment options and more time. Now five and a half years later, three ALK inhibitor drugs have been approved by the FDA, immunotherapy has entered into the treatment landscape, additional drugs are being investigated, NCCN treatment guidelines have changed and liquid biopsies have been approved. Currently I am on an investigational drug, lorlatinib, and doing well.
As a health educator in the pharmaceutical industry and a retired oncology social worker, I understood the road ahead could wind in many directions. Since being diagnosed I’ve been surrounded by support from professional friends and colleagues and long-time dear friends who cared deeply. That means a lot to me.
My family has been there by my side from day one. Living with cancer is only possible because of their love, devotion and humor. The theme music parties helped to get through long chemo days. Now that I’m on oral treatment I plug into Pandora and party solo.
I have experienced some really challenging times due to the disease. Life with lung cancer keeps me vigilante. A day doesn’t go by when I’m not thinking about it, but it’s what I think about that makes a difference in how I cope. I never stop reading about the advances in cancer care and exploring things I can do for myself. It is so important to learn as much as you can about your cancer and to be actively involved in your care.
My efforts in advocacy began as a social worker 30+ years ago. Today, I volunteer to increase lung cancer awareness, talk about the advances in precision medicine and treatment and encourage clinical trial participation. This past November I hosted a Shine a Light in my state and have spoken with staff at cancer centers across New Jersey as well as our state and national legislators. I am hopeful that in 2017 I will see a New Jersey proclamation that every November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month.