Encouragement in Difficult Times
Why I'm Hopeful Despite Having A Terminal Cancer Diagnosis
Sam McBride, 64, is living with stage 4 lung cancer. Here's how this mom of three, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of four copes with a diagnosis she knows could cut her life short any day.
In December 2014, I started having shortness of breath and a persistent cough. I went to see my primary care physician and was diagnosed with bronchitis/asthma and put on an antibiotic and an inhaler. But the treatment didn't work. I kept going back to the doctor and getting the same diagnosis and treatment, but things were getting worse. When I could no longer walk from the sofa to the bathroom without panting, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
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I made an appointment with a pulmonologist even though there was a charge for not having a referral. The doctor found malignant cells and several tumors in my lungs. A biopsy revealed that I had stage 4 adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that forms in mucus-secreting glands.
When I got the news, it was a complete shock. I've never smoked or worked in any sort of toxic environment, so I never thought I'd get lung cancer. I soon learned that I wasn't a candidate for surgery, but my tumors were tested for gene mutations. Since I grew up in a children's home, I don't know anything about my parents or their medical history, but that day I learned that I was positive for a mutation called ALK.
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In a way, learning I had that mutation was a blessing in disguise, because within the past few years they've come up with an oral medication for people who have it. The drug is called Xalkori (crizotinib), and my oncologist put me on it immediately.
Luckily, I'm doing well on the medication—I've been on it for 13 months—and I take it twice a day. At first it wasn't a walk in the park. I was nauseous, but I learned soon enough to take the med on a full stomach. In the beginning I had some visual disturbances, too. Just like when you walk from a dark room into sunlight—I would see flashes—but that's kind of gone away now. I still deal with diarrhea from time to time, but I started taking probiotics and that has helped. I've also changed my diet. I cut out fried chicken and carbs and added lots of fruits and vegetables.
I'm back at work, too. My husband, Bob, and I have our own business doing market research for Pepsi-Cola, and I've been able to keep up with it—I'm happy that I can be out of the house working.
My relatives all live nearby and it's a blessing to be together. When I'm with them, I can be a kid again and play trucks or dress up with my 11-year-old granddaughter, who is in-between growing up and still being a kid.
I'm also on a mission to use social media to make people aware of lung cancer. So many people misunderstand the disease, and I used to be one of them—I assumed I could never get it because I've always tried to take care of myself. There's a big stigma attached to lung cancer that the other cancers don't have. When someone says "I have breast cancer," you automatically say, "I'm sorry." When you have lung cancer, the first thing people ask is, "Did you smoke?"
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When I tell people I have lung cancer, I try to put them at ease and help them realize that I'm still me. I tell them that I'm on a recently approved medication and that I'm feeling great. I also always tell other lung cancer patients about organizations like , which funds scientific research for lung cancer.
It's in my cancer support group that I can really talk about how I feel, since we all understand each other so well. And I recently went to a camp for cancer patients. I was nervous because I didn't know a soul there. But when I walked up to people, the conversation flowed easily because we have this common bond.
I'm focused right now on feeling healthy and taking my medication. I'll be on it for as long as it works. I do know that the genes will eventually re-mutate. They're clever creatures. Also, Xalkori won't protect my brain from the reach of the cancer. But on the last MRI—I get them every 3 months—my brain looked fine, so that's a relief.
If you ask me, I don't think we should use the word "terminal." I don't look at myself as a terminal cancer patient. I realize that lung cancer is very deadly and that there isn't a real cure. But, at this moment in time, everyone is terminal. I could walk out my door and get hit by a bus. Maybe if I were in hospice care, I might see it that way. But I think the word "terminal" makes you lose hope.
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