We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; this month’s bonus column comes from patient advocate Emily Bennett Taylor.
When I was diagnosed at age 28 with stage IV lung cancer (yes, you read that right: 28. Non-smoker, college athlete, lung cancer), I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. No, not in the joyous, “share-my-news” type of way. The concept was so unfathomable that I sometimes felt the only way it would really sink in is if I screamed it out loud in public. I didn’t, of course. While many social norms, like dressing to leave the house or even showering, went completely out the window as I underwent treatment, I’m happy to report that I managed to maintain at least a semblance of sanity in public. And I’ve thankfully found better venues – such as this article – to share my story.
I learned very quickly that as a young lung cancer patient, I had to find my own path. In a cancer normally associated with older smokers, I was constantly telling my doctors: “I’m different. I’m strong. I want to be as aggressive as possible.” Standard of care is to treat stage IV patients palliatively, but that didn’t sit well with me – I wanted a cure. I was told “no” to surgery countless times. I kept seeking second, third, multitudes of opinions in order to find a doctor who would see me as the young, strong person I was with my whole life ahead of me.
While I tested negative for all known genetic mutations (I know one is out there – please find it for me!), I was fortunate to be part of a small percentage of patients who respond to traditional chemotherapy. After six rounds of carboplatin, Alimta and Avastin, and two additional infusions of Avastin, I found my white knight in Raja Flores, MD, of Mount Sinai Hospital. My husband and I relocated from our home in California to New York City for three months, and on February 8, 2013, Dr. Flores removed my entire right lung, pleura, half my diaphragm, all mediastinal lymph nodes, and the pericardial sac (around my heart), which he rebuilt with Gore-Tex.
Three weeks into my recovery, I began a follow-up course of 28 rounds of high-dose radiation to my right lung cavity. If there were any cancer cells left, Dr. Flores and I intended to fry them into oblivion – even if side effects had me vomiting and nauseated for the better part of six weeks, and exhausted for another six months.
My reward? Dr. Flores declared me N.E.D. – No Evidence of Disease. I’ve lived with that diagnosis for almost a year and a half now, and it feels fantastic.
Is life with one lung difficult? Sometimes. But the most important thing to me is that it’s still life. Lots of surgeons told me “no” because they believed removing a lung would diminish my “quality of life.” For me, losing a lung meant gaining my life, and that’s a trade-off I think any patient would make if given the choice.
If you’re a medical student looking for an area where you can make a serious impact, consider lung cancer. In the past few decades, survival rates for other major cancers (breast, prostate, colon) have increased to well above 50 percent, some reaching the upper 90s. Lung cancer, the nation’s No. 1 cancer killer? A dismal 16.8 percent.
This is a field ripe for advancement. We need researchers developing better treatments and methods of early detection. We need doctors who both understand that the face of lung cancer is changing and are also willing to push the envelope with their patients to find an individualized, aggressive cure.
Every lung cancer is different, and every patient deserves a treatment plan with the goal of preserving life. You can be the difference. You can make an impact. And you can change the course of someone’s life, just like Dr. Flores did for me.
Emily Bennett Taylor, a former state track champion, college volleyball player, and finance manager, is now a Stage IV lung cancer survivor and spokesperson/patient advocate for the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. Her story has been highlighted on the Steve Harvey Show, the Atlantic Monthly, and on her blog – embenkickscancer.wordpress.com – named to Healthline’s Top Lung Cancer Blogs in 2013 and 2014. She writes candidly about her treatment and life with one lung, as she works to raise awareness about the leading cancer killer. Emily lives in Southern California with her husband Miles and their two lovable mutts, Ginny & Tonic.