How I dealt with my worst lung cancer symptom and side effect
I didn’t even know I had stage IV lung cancer until I went to my doctor in September 2016 for back pain. A CT scan revealed large tumors on my left adrenal gland and right lung. They were taking up so much space in my chest and abdominal cavity that they were literally getting on my nerves.
Most people can go to a doctor and say, “Hey, I’m hurting. Please give me a drug.” But I’m very medication-sensitive, and almost all pain medicine makes me sick. So if I take even one pill, I’ll be puking for hours. It’s just the way I am. I’ve been that way my entire life.
As you can imagine, that makes it pretty hard for doctors to come up with a medication cocktail I can tolerate. Dr. Bonnie Glisson, my doctor at MD Anderson, finally ended up going with an old-school anti-nausea medication called Compazine and a half-dose of a new pain medicine called dilaudid.
My back pain remained an issue until pembrolizumab, the immunotherapy drug I began taking, started to shrink my tumors. But once we got the pain under control, I could focus on other things. So then, we dealt with the rash.
Managing an itchy rash caused by immunotherapy
The immunotherapy drug I’m on causes my skin to become extremely dry and itchy. It’s almost like having eczema, so I have to keep my skin moisturized. I’ve managed that condition for almost two years now with an arsenal of creams, ointments and lotions. I also take an over-the-counter antihistamine every day without fail, so it doesn’t itch as bad.
Is the skin rash pretty? No. My legs aren’t real attractive when I have to wear shorts. But my tumors have been stable for more than two years now. So, if that’s the worst thing I ever have to deal with, I feel like I’m doing pretty good.
Managing other people’s expectations
Sometimes, when people see me, they say, “Well, you don’t look sick.” I’m not sure what they think I’m supposed to look like. But I’m happy to prove that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re doomed to an automatic death sentence or a miserable outcome.
Being involved in an immunotherapy clinical trial has been so exciting for me. Because without research, there are no advances. And I believe that with the right medication, even something like stage IV lung cancer can be treated like diabetes, or some other chronic condition. I’m the proof.