Lung cancer patient finds pain relief at MD Anderson
It may seem strange to feel lucky while going through cancer treatment, but that’s exactly how I feel. My lung cancer experience hasn’t been easy, but thanks to a few strokes of luck, including finding a successful treatment plan at MD Anderson, I’m feeling well and enjoying life.
From college parent to cancer patient
I’m a happily married mother of twins – a daughter and son. In the summer of 2021, we sent my kids off to their freshman year of college at separate schools in our home state of Florida. It was the first time they’d really been away from home or each other.
Just a few weeks after they left, I noticed a lump on my left rib. My mother had breast cancer and her first symptom was a lump on her rib, so I knew I should get this checked out.
My local OB-GYN performed an ultrasound. The results showed the lump was probably a lipoma – a benign tumor – and nothing to worry about.
The next day I noticed a lump behind my ear. Then a few days after that another one showed up on my throat.
My husband joked to a friend that I started falling apart as soon as the kids went off to school. The friend happens to be a doctor, so he looked at the bumps and said he wouldn’t trust the “all clear” and recommended getting these new bumps checked out.
I went to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who biopsied the bumps. Thinking the bumps were nothing to worry about, I took a rideshare to my appointment. Right away the doctor told me it didn’t look good, but we needed to wait for the pathology results.
That night my ENT called me and told me the words I’ll never forget: “You have cancer.” He got a hold of my primary care doctor, who stopped by my home that evening to discuss getting a PET scan the next day to determine what type of cancer I had.
Sharing my diagnosis with my family
My husband was a commercial pilot at the time and was away on a trip. I didn’t want to worry him before a flight so I sent him a text asking him to call me when he could. By coincidence, luck, or divine intervention, his flight had been rerouted and he was just a short drive away from home when I told him the news. His coworkers were so gracious to cover his shifts so he could be home with me.
The next step was to tell our kids. My husband and I spoke to a therapist about the best way to talk to them about my diagnosis, knowing that they were already going through a transition starting school. We reassured them that I was going to be OK and that their job was to stay in school.
“Flunking out” of treatment and finding MD Anderson
I started chemotherapy and radiation in Florida at the end of October. As I started losing my hair, I could see a skin tag on my head. I’d known it was there for a while, but now that I could see it, I decided to get it removed at my dermatologist’s office.
When the wound still hadn’t healed after a few weeks I asked my oncology nurse about it, and she agreed it didn’t look right. My oncologist biopsied the spot and confirmed what I thought was a skin tag was cancer. This meant the chemo and radiation weren’t working. I called that “flunking out” of treatment at my local hospital and began searching for new options.
My research led me to Dr. Lauren Byers, who leads several lung cancer clinical trials at MD Anderson. She introduced me to Dr. David Hong, who was enrolling patients in a clinical trial investigating KRAS inhibitors. I enrolled right away.
At this time, I was in so much pain with the tumor pressing against my spine I was taking 20 Advil a day. Dr. Hong told me to be clear for the trial I’d have to quit taking so much … so I quit Advil cold turkey even though it meant living with extreme pain.
Finding pain relief at MD Anderson
When I say I was in pain, I mean I gave birth to twins naturally and barely took any pain medicine – but this experience left me agitated, unable to sit down or sleep for more than two hours at a time.
I told Dr. Chung I was a “problem child,” because even small doses of opioids make me nauseous, so those were off the table.
At his recommendation, I started taking Tylenol with codeine which helped a bit, but I was still sitting up to sleep and only getting a few hours each night.
His next recommendation was a nerve block, a procedure that uses implanted probes to stimulate nerves in my back to trick my brain into interpreting the pain differently. That worked well for a while until my husband accidentally removed one of the probes during a bandage change.
Finally, Dr. Chung prescribed morphine. I was hesitant at first, based on stereotypes I’d seen in movies and on TV, but he assured me a low dose of slow-release morphine would help me get some much-needed rest and wouldn’t make me feel foggy.
Dr. Chung was right. I’m sleeping for longer stretches at night and back to walking two miles each morning. At the same time, my tumor has been shrinking thanks to my cancer treatment from Dr. Hong. The combination of cancer treatment and pain management has me feeling like a new person and I know I’ll be back to doing even more of the things I love soon.
Making the most out of my visits to Houston
Right now I’m traveling to Houston every three weeks for scans, blood work and checkups with my care team. I know I’m lucky to be able to make these trips so often and have gotten into a good routine. My husband or sister usually come with me for my longer appointments.
While these trips are no vacation, I’ve tried to make the most of my visits. My sister and I even reconnected with some childhood friends so we try to get out and enjoy the Houston restaurant scene together when we can.
I can’t imagine going through this process without the support of my loving family, my faith and, of course, my care team at MD Anderson.
My advice for other patients is simple. Have faith and find the best team to treat you and your needs. And that’s what I’ve found since coming to MD Anderson.