Women’s Health Part II: It Takes Your Breath Away, by Beverly Hicks Burch

If I was to ask you to name the number one cancer that kills women, what would you answer? Breast cancer? Ovarian cancer? If those were your answers, you guessed wrong. According to the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org), although there may be a higher occurrence of breast cancer in women, lung cancer kills more women each year than breast cancer and any other cancer. The numbers are staggering. In 2004, it was estimated that 68, 510 women died from lung cancer in the US alone (www.lungcancer.org).

This is an issue I am all too familiar with. In 1982, at the age of 28, I experienced my first brush with lung cancer. At the time, I had an eighteen month old baby and as I reflect back I realize my body probably was in the manifesting stages of the autoimmune disorders I now deal with. It was purely a fluke the tumor on my right lung was found…I had not really had any real symptoms…until one day I was out shopping with my son, mother and sister and had a disabling pain shoot across my collar bone. When it happened the second time within a matter of minutes, I told my mother I thought I really needed to get to the doctor. When he saw me and I explained my symptoms, he was concern I might be having a collapsed lung, so he sent me to have x-rays. Back in the exam room, I had the sense something was wrong as I waited on the doctor to come back in with the results of the x-rays. I could hear him talking down the hallway to some nurses…I had been using this family doctor since I was 12 years old, so I was familiar with his manner. When he walked in the room, just the look on his face told me something out of the ordinary was wrong…the x-ray revealed a spot on my right lung. What do you do at age 28 when you hear those words? My blood seemed to turn to ice in my veins and I remember an overwhelming desire to fight and survive because I had a baby to love and raise.

That was in September 1981, and the next few months between then and January 1982 were a blur of doctors, tests and waiting…and a holiday season of wondering if I would see the next holiday season. I was sent to a radiologist for a series of scans. He had the personality of an artichoke and as I laid on a cold table wearing a hospital gown, he told me I had a 33% chance of cancer, 33% chance of an enlarge lymph node or a 33% chance of a calcium deposit…and then he left the room. Hummm… I was then referred to a thoracic surgeon and his decision was to observe the situation for 3 months…and we did. I became quite the expert on standing just right and raising my hands over my head for x-rays. Then came January…the waiting was over, the decision was made…surgery. This was pre-HMO days, so I was admitted several days before the surgery for tests, which included a nuclear scan to see if cancer had spread to my bones and other parts of my body. And then the big day came…surgery…the only thing I can remember about that day is sensing a bright light then waking up in ICU in a drugged stupor, and asking a nurse if the tumor had been cancer. Even in that state of mind, I remember her response…”The doctor will talk to you” and I remember thinking, “Well, there you go…it was cancer”. Later, the surgeon explained the tumor was about the size of a coin and was about as low-grade malignant as it could be and still be considered cancer. He remarked we should thank God we found it when we did before it grew and became more virulent and larger. The tumor and a portion of the lower lobe of my right lung had been removed. (Your right lung is the largest of the two and has 3 lobes…your left lung is smaller and has 2 lobes.) This type of thoracic surgery is very serious and invasive. The patient is cut from front to back on their side and their ribs are broken and spread open to access the lung…that was my first “broken” bone. After a week in ICU, I was released to a room for further recovery time…and then, I went home to recover and deal with the fact that at age 28 I’d had lung cancer.

I started counting the years, and as each cancer-free year went by I celebrated. When the 5th anniversary rolled around I was elated, but when number 10 arrived I thought I was home-free. But, then, 1995 arrived. In the spring of that year I started coughing, I was a little congested so I thought nothing of it. By then I had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome and other health problems, had one bout of lung cancer and quite frankly was tired of being a pincushion and going to the doctor…so, I ignored the cough. Spring turned to summer and the cough lingered. By late summer it was significantly worse. I was coughing until my head hurt and finally I knew I was in trouble when I coughed up some blood. I couldn’t ignore it any longer and went back to my family doctor who once again took x-rays.

Once again, I heard Dr. Davies talking to a nurse down the hall as he examined the x-rays. His face told the story when he walked in the room. This time it was my left lung. We talked possibilities…I took a TB test…I remember him saying we could pray that it was TB because the remedies were not as invasive. I went to a pulmonary specialist, radiologist and a thoracic surgeon. I went through a bronchoscopy, a procedure in which a long flexible tube was inserted into my left lung through my nostril for a biopsy purpose. A tissue sample was taken and the result came back negative, but the radiologist disagreed and felt the mass on my lung was cancer.

So, after the “team” got together and had a confab the decision was made…surgery…again. This time it was the days of HMO’s. I went in the hospital Oct. 25, 1995, had my surgery that day and was sent home 1 week later to the day. It was a gruesome time…I won’t share all the details…I did learn that the doctor “inadvertently” cut my artery during the surgery. The results were indisputable though…cancer…again. This time more aggressive and virulent. The bronchoscopy had been wrong because the tissue taken was from inside my lung. The cancer was growing on the apex of my left lung…on the outside. The surgeons removed 60% of my left lung and had to totally reshape me a new lung with what was left. And then, my recovery and the counting started all over again. I am now a little past 12 years since my last brush with cancer, but the words of my oncologist still ring in my ears, “Since you had cancer twice before the age of 41, it’s not if you get cancer again but when you get cancer again.” And so, I wait and live…

I know you’re asking or thinking…she must be a smoker. Pure and simple…nope. I had never touched a cigarette…had not been around second hand smoke…we just don’t know why. It could be radon…it could be related to my autoimmune diseases, but fact is fact and it happened to me…twice. The most common cause of lung cancer in men and women is smoking, but research shows that women are 1.5 times more likely to develop cancer from smoking. If you quit smoking that will help your chances.

Like any cancer, detection is crucial. Know the signs. Every year during breast cancer awareness month I want to scream, “Wait…tell everyone what the number one killer is.” It’s lung cancer! Breast cancer is important, but so is lung cancer…you can not live without your lungs. Please, be aware…know about the facts of lung cancer.

© 2007 Beverly Hicks Burch All rights reserved.

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2 Comments

Filed under cancer, Health, Women's health

2 responses to “Women’s Health Part II: It Takes Your Breath Away, by Beverly Hicks Burch

  1. sheilamiller31

    “Since you had cancer twice before the age of 41, it’s not if you get cancer again but when you get cancer again.”
    Prove him wrong!! It’s a pet peeve of mine when docs say things like this. All that medical fear hype. I hope you don’t buy into it. Nobody has a crystal ball into the future.

  2. Well, Sheila, it’ been 12-1/2 years since the last cancer took 60% of my left lung and I’m proud to say I have been cancer free for those 12-1/2 years!

    It took me several months to wrap my head around the fact I had been a two time non-smoking lung cancer survivor. There was a certain amount of fear, but one day I realized I had looked death in the face twice and survived.

    I decided to live each day and enjoy each day as best as I could, not worry about what had not happened because it might not ever happen…and survive!

    I’ve jokingly told friends that cancer and chronic illnesses have an upside…than can cure you of some of your OCD…LOL!

    Thanks for the support,
    Bev

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