My Journey with Lung Cancer: Battling the Invisible Monster

Choosing to Fight for the Finest Lung Cancer Treatment My Journey

Why I Refused to Settle for Anything Less than the Best Lung Cancer Treatment

By Leah Phillips, as told to Janie McQueen

Diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2019, I never even tried a cigarette. I didn’t grow up around secondhand smoke. But at first, before I had biomarker testing, doctors told me they hoped I’d be alive at Christmas the following year.

Picture this: It was September 2019, the start of what seemed like a harmless cough. Little did I know that this seemingly innocent cough would turn into a relentless monster, determined to wreak havoc on my life. Like most people, I thought it was just a simple case of pneumonia. Boy, was I wrong! As the cough lingered, refusing to budge, I knew something wasn’t right. Eventually, another CT scan revealed the unthinkable – cancer spots in my spine. The cancer had spread from my lung to my spine and pelvis. Stage IV lung cancer. The words echoed in my ears, signaling the start of an uphill battle against an invisible enemy.

The Turning Point: Biomarker Testing

With my loving husband by my side, we embarked on a journey that would ultimately change the course of my treatment. You see, the key turning point for us was getting biomarker testing. It’s like finding the hidden treasure map that guides you out of a treacherous maze. While larger hospitals prioritize this kind of testing, smaller hospitals often miss the mark. That’s why seeking a second opinion and pushing for biomarker testing is vital. It’s your life we’re talking about here.

And guess what? My test results came back with a genetic mutation called an EGFR exon 19 deletion. The culprit behind the broken gene that allowed lung cancer to thrive? Radon exposure. Yes, you heard that right. Radon, the odorless, tasteless gas that seeps through limestone, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting victims. It’s like a stealthy ninja, silently infiltrating our homes and buildings, polluting the air we breathe. It took years for radon to break that gene, patiently waiting to pounce on its prey.

What’s Radon?

Radon, my friends, is the elusive villain responsible for countless lung cancer cases. It’s emitted daily through limestone, but it usually gets diluted in the air, becoming harmless. However, in certain areas like Colorado and Tennessee, where limestone is abundant, radon exposure can be a grave danger. Imagine housing or buildings sitting atop limestone with high levels of radon. It’s like a toxic time bomb waiting to go off. Breathing it in, absorbing its deadly fumes. Radon breaks that gene, like a thief stealing the very essence of your health.

Now, hold your breath, because this is where it gets even scarier. You know how the EPA measures radon? They use a measure called picocurie or “pico” for short. A level 4 or below is considered safe, but let me give you some context. If your pico reading hits 20, it’s like smoking a whopping 40 cigarettes every single day. Can you believe it? It’s mind-boggling how something seemingly harmless can unleash such devastation.

Back in my Kentucky upbringing, radon was prevalent, always lurking in the shadows. It’s a sneaky foe that demands constant vigilance. Trust me, testing your radon levels every 2 to 3 years is a small price to pay to protect yourself and your loved ones. And if your radon level comes back high, don’t fret! You can have it mitigated, just like a superhero combating the forces of evil. A simple fan placed in your attic and a pipe sucking the radon out, keeping that constant flow. Don’t dwell on tracing back where you were exposed to radon. Focus your energy on moving forward, on your treatment, on your well-being.

Targeted Therapy: A Beacon of Hope

Amidst the chaos, a glimmer of hope emerged in the form of targeted therapy. Imagine a superpower, a cancer treatment that hones in on those malicious proteins responsible for cancer cell growth. At Vanderbilt, my remarkable doctor prescribed Tagrisso (osimertinib mesylate), a breakthrough targeted therapy specifically designed for people with EGFR exon lung cancer. This incredible treatment tricks your body, fooling it into believing that the broken gene is still intact. It’s like giving cancer a taste of its own medicine.

In December 2019, armed with Tagrisso, I entered the battlefield. And oh boy, what a battle it was! By December 2020, the primary tumor shrunk by a staggering 70%, leaving a trail of defeated cancer cells in its wake. But we weren’t ready to celebrate just yet. No, sir! We opted to be aggressive, choosing to undergo eight high-powered SBRT, a.k.a. stereotactic body radiation therapy. Think of it as a surgical strike against cancer cells, obliterating them while preserving healthy tissue. It was a calculated risk, a chance to eliminate any remnants of the enemy within.

Fast forward to today, my condition has remained stable, no sign of cancer growth. They say targeted therapies like Tagrisso typically work for 2 to 3 years before they lose their magic touch. Well, let me tell you, it’s been almost 3 years, and Tagrisso is still working its wonders. It’s like the little engine that could. Don’t underestimate the power of determination, my friends. Sure, the jury is still out on how long it can last, but I firmly believe that overall health plays a vital role. I’m fit, active, and brimming with life. A busy mother of three, juggling it all. Age is just a number, after all.

The Takeaway, So Far

Education and advocacy have become the pillars of my journey. Armed with knowledge, we refused to blindly follow one doctor’s words. We knew we had to become our own advocates, fighting tooth and nail for the treatment I deserved. I was a force to be reckoned with, running 20 miles a week, caring for my kids, determined not to let this diagnosis be my end. We faced the loneliness and judgment head-on, for this is a battle most people don’t understand. Lung cancer, the black sheep of the cancer family, unfairly stigmatized. But we won’t be silenced, we won’t back down. We drive three hours every three months to see our trusted specialists. We raise awareness, urging everyone to acknowledge that lung cancer can affect anyone, regardless of age or history.

My journey with lung cancer has been far from easy, but I’m here to tell you that hope exists. There’s strength within us, waiting to be unleashed. And together, we can conquer the invisible monster that lurks within. Don’t let the stigma or the judgments deter you. Arm yourself with knowledge, seek the best possible care, and surround yourself with a support system that lifts you up. We’re in this together, my friends. Let’s fight back with all our might.

Like Leah, have you ever faced a battle against unexpected odds? Share your story in the comments below! Let’s uplift and inspire one another.