Coming Clean, Round 1

Here we are again, heading into the autumn season. At one time, this is when I’d be mourning summer, reminiscing about the road trips I’d just taken, and dreaming of the next years’s road trips. Almost unbelievably, I’m still doing all that, but for the past two years, September is also when I’m faced with memories of the beginning of my cancer journey. Yes, I’m coming up on my second cancerversary with Stage IV Lung Cancer, a diagnosis that few are lucky enough to survive. So I have to be prepared when I look at my Facebook memories, because chances are 100% that I’ll be seeing myself with a tumor growing in my sternum, the first sign that there was something not completely right in my world.

To “celebrate” the upcoming anniversary of my diagnosis, I will “come clean” with the many details of my journey of staying one step ahead of death, sometimes not even that. And because I know that I’ll need more than one post, I’m calling this Round 1.

I saw the lump in my sternum in late August of 2019. Felt it before then, a strange pulling feeling in my neck. And I was exhausted. But the summer was great. I had amazing road trips in the southern U.S. and southwestern U.S., and an incredible journey to Sri Lanka. Other than being really tired at the end of the day, I had no other sign of what was coming. I hiked hundreds of miles a month, and kept up my crazy schedule otherwise. Frequently I proclaimed myself a “lucky girl” for the life I was leading.

The 2019-2020 school year started well, my sixteenth year as a Special Ed teacher. Two weeks in, however, I began to feel intense pain in my neck and head, so bad that one day I had to leave and go to the ER. I also had the school nurse look at the lump in my sternum. She measured it at one centimeter and suggested I get it checked out. I didn’t pay much attention to it until I started to ache from the waist up, so badly I couldn’t think straight.

Thus started a string of doctor appointments, ER visits, and scans. An X-ray showed something happening in my lung. A CT scan was next. I sat on pins and needles while awaiting results, trying to function correctly while trying to convince myself that my life wasn’t falling apart. It couldn’t! I was a lucky girl, traveling and doing so many things I love to do!

My primary care doctor soon uttered the word “oncologist,” not because she thought I had cancer, but because she wanted to be sure I didn’t have cancer. And so, I entered the world of “the Big C”and oncology, hopefully for only one visit. That was not to be. After an overnight hospital visit, a series of scans including the all-powerful (and expensive) PET scan, and a ton of misinformation, I was told in one of my now-frequent ER visits, that I indeed had cancer. An “incidental finding” from a brain MRI also showed a tiny tumor, usually benign, called a meningioma. I have not revealed this until now, because I feared brain cancer. Over the past two years my little buddy has proven thus far to be unchanged and something that has likely been there for some time. Meningiomas are actually quite common. But at the time, it was more devastating news that would get worse before it would get better.

Two draining months went by as I ran from doctor to surgeon to specialist to radiologist and back to oncologist. The road trip I never wanted to take. The news was grim: Stage 3b non small cell lung cancer, (NSCLC) with radiation and chemotherapy in my foreseeable future. My team of local oncologist and radiation oncologist were hoping for “cure” but also sent out the biopsy tissue from my tumors for what is called biomarker testing, which could change the entire course of my treatment, if I was “lucky” enough to have one of the eight biomarkers in lung cancer. It could be the difference between taking a pill to kill cancer (what???!!!) by targeting a mutation in my tumors, or going through the common course of treatment, chemo and radiation. While we awaited results, a node on the side of my neck started to grow, and the tumors in my sternum and lung continued to get larger. I also had to have a biopsy on a growth in my throat that turned out to be benign, but that held up treatment by a couple of weeks. My dentist even chimed in with the possibility of a tumor in my gum. All arrows seemed to be pointing to death. Metastatic cancer. Everywhere!

The truth was that I had active and growing cancer in three places: lung, sternum, and neck node. The local team stuck with the 3b designation. Behind the scenes, I was considering a trip into Boston, about 75 miles from my Western Massachusetts home, or at least getting an online second opinion. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is consistently in the top five cancer centers in the country, and friends were telling me that I needed to go there. Admittedly, I dragged my feet, because I thought I was doing okay with the local hospital. But I had the good sense to talk to my oncologist about it, who sent a referral. His staff set up an appointment for me, which was after I had already started radiation, but was the very day before I was set to start chemo. How’s that for timing?

Starting treatment was at least going in the right direction, or so it seemed, but the worst news of all came through: seven out of eight biomarkers came through as negative, so there would be no pills for me. So much for being a “lucky girl.” Bring on the chemo!

November 13, 2019 is a day that lives in infamy for me, for it’s the day that I went to Boston for my appointment at Dana-Farber. It’s the day that I found out that I was in Stage IV, but that I indeed had a biomarker, the eighth one, ROS1, and that I could stop radiation, cancel chemo, and swallow a pill! Two weeks later I started a drug called Rozlytrek (entrectinib) that by some miracle shrank all three of my tumors. The one in my sternum went away altogether. The other two shrank enough that I could have consolidative radiation therapy, that had the possible promise of a long life restored!

For most of 2020, things were moving steadily in that direction, even through COVID19. I had radiation on my lung tumor, and later, my neck node was radiated. Whew, what a cancer ride! This looked like the end of it for me! Had I ever lucked out! Imagine, possibly cured of Stage IV Lung Cancer!

I had lucked out. But it wasn’t over. I wasn’t quite that lucky.

Before I could even enjoy winning round one, round two was ready to take me to the mat.

Me, one year after diagnosis, road tripping between rounds one and two

Author: barblee

Barb Lee is a native of Western Massachusetts who loves to write, travel and hike the world, and hang out with her beautiful Jersey Wooly bunny Muffin. Her whole life changed when she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in October of 2019. By January of 2020, she was bouncing back in a major way. Now, in addition to all her favorite activities, she wants to help others make the most of life following a devastating diagnosis, while she continues to beat the odds.

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