Before mesothelioma, Sherrie Moore dreaded the idea of getting older. Now, three years after being diagnosed with the challenging illness, she celebrates each birthday with joy.
"I used to not want to grow old, but now I want to have a major celebration each year," says Moore, who celebrated turning 55 at her home in Carl Junction, Mo., on Nov. 30.
In early 2008, Moore was supporting her husband, Ed, in his battle with prostate cancer. When she began to feel fatigued and noted an elevated heart rate, she called her general physician. He referred her to a cardiologist, whom she had seen in the past for high cholesterol.
When her blood work revealed a low hemoglobin count, Moore received a blood transfusion. She also was instructed to visit a gastrointestinal doctor for an endoscopy and colonoscopy. Those yielded normal results.
She followed up with her cardiologist three months later and learned that her hemoglobin levels had returned to almost normal. By that time, she was feeling better.
In July 2008, Moore returned to her physician with a pain in her right side that extended into her back. She associated the aches with the stress and physical exertion of taking care of her husband.
The doctor ordered a CT scan of her liver and pancreas. While he found no abnormalities in these organs, he recommended she find a pulmonary specialist. Something didn't look right with her lungs. On an X-ray, the specialist discovered a small volume of fluid in her lungs and put Moore on antibiotics. Over the next two months, Moore directed her attention to her husband's health and put off her doctor's recommendation to return for regular check-ups.
A call to action
A handwritten letter she received from the pulmonologist in early September, however, prompted her to take action.
"He said he was very concerned about my well-being and that lung. He asked me to please follow up," she says. Still, she didn't return to his office for three more weeks because her main concern was Ed.
When she returned in October, Moore received a CT scan with contrast. She left the hospital and had driven less than two miles when her doctor called and insisted she come back. The scan revealed nearly two liters of fluid in her right lung. They needed to remove it quickly.
"Of course, I was driving, and I was just crying," she says.
The next day, Moore underwent the outpatient procedure and a biopsy. The results were inconclusive but led the doctor to believe that she may have mesothelioma in the affected lung.
An oncologist to whom she was referred did not believe she had cancer but, to be sure, encouraged Moore to have an open-lung biopsy, a painful inpatient procedure.
Faith in the face of a deadly diagnosis
The thoracic surgeon who performed the operation on Nov. 25, 2008, immediately recognized stage IV mesothelioma -- the cause of Moore's discomfort and pain. By the time of her surgery, 15 tumors had grown in her right lung.
Moore and her husband discussed the devastating news with the surgeon.
"Dr. Myers explained that mesothelioma is a terminal cancer with very few treatment options," she says. "Ed asked him, 'If this was your wife, where would you take her?' He said, 'With any kind of cancer -- but especially mesothelioma -- MD Anderson in Houston, Texas.'"
Myers, Moore adds, told them that he was able to immediately recognize her cancer because he completed his fellowship at MD Anderson. It was there he learned to recognize the disease.
Hope for self, others
In January 2009, Moore came to MD Anderson, where she met with Anne Tsao, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology and director of its Mesothelioma Program.
Moore's treatment options were limited. Having cancer in both lungs eliminated the option of removing one of them. Her cancer was too advanced for her to survive radiation treatments. Chemotherapy with a recently approved drug would be her only alternative.
"I had to stay positive, though," she says. "I told Dr. Tsao, 'For every cancer, there has been someone who has been cured, and there had to be a first. Let me be your first.'"
Moore had 28 chemotherapy treatments that lasted until December 2010 -- although by September that year, there were no signs of active cancer. In January 2011, Tsao announced with tears in her eyes that Moore was in full remission from mesothelioma, the first of her patients to achieve this.
Now, more than one year cancer-free, Moore attributes her survival, first, to her strong faith in God, which allowed her to stay optimistic in the face of the seemingly hopeless situation, and second, to aggressive cancer research.
"It is so humbling to be the first of Dr. Tsao's patients to survive this cancer," she says. "I thank God for giving me the opportunity to share with patients the hope that could not be given to me."