20th May 2019

Heather Christian

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Manx resident, Heather Christian, has always taken a keen interest in her health, eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. Despite this, she was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer in her early 50s.

Heather shared her story as part of our Follow my Lead campaign

“It was back in December 2015 when I first developed a pain in my back. The following month I had a fall and the pain got worse. I went to my GP who prescribed co-codamol and I also had regular appointments with a chiropractor.

The pain didn’t go though so I went back to the GP. This time they prescribed anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxant medication too. I took these for a fortnight and it helped considerably but then the pain returned with a vengeance. I struggled to stand up, sit down, walk up and down stairs, or even carry my handbag!

It got so bad I went to A&E. They did a chest x-ray which showed a shadow at the bottom of my right lung. I was advised it could be an infection – or a tumour. I was given antibiotics and had a follow up x-ray scheduled for two weeks later.

My symptoms persisted and, when the shadow was still there on the next x-ray, they sent me for a CT scan.

The CT scan confirmed I had a lower lobe mass in my right lung, mediastinal lymphadenopathy and bone metastases on my spine and right femur. A subsequent MRI scan revealed impending spinal cord compression and I was immediately transferred to Clatterbridge Hospital for emergency radiotherapy.

Time for treatment

On returning to the Isle of Man, I had chemotherapy. I also receive Denosumab injections every four weeks to help protect my bones. The chemotherapy shrank the tumour in my lung but made me so ill that, after the first few treatments, I was in hospital for most of each cycle, requiring chest drains and blood transfusions. During this time, I had pneumonia, pleurisy and chemo-related sepsis. I had a pleurodesis operation at Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital in August 2016 to help reduce the risk of further fluid build-up on my chest.

I decided to stop the chemotherapy in October 2016 after nine cycles as it was becoming clear that the treatment was likely to kill me before the cancer could!

The disease remained stable until October 2017 when a scan revealed a nodule in the lower right lung and some dilation of my left kidney. A PET scan revealed that what had appeared to be a nodule in the lung was just scar tissue. However, there was further disease progression in my spine, neck and left pelvis.

Being diagnosed with incurable lung cancer changes your life but I’ve found it is best to focus on what you can still enjoy, make the most of each day and try to find humour where you can.

Heather, living with lung cancer

I received single fraction radiotherapy to the lower T spine and started on the immunotherapy, Pembrolizumab in December 2017. The next CT scan reported that my kidneys appeared normal.

Thankfully, my disease has remained stable up to now, although I am aware that the situation could change at any time. I consider myself very fortunate as the prognosis in February 2016 was just nine months.

Living with lung cancer

Since my diagnosis, I have tried to eat even more healthily than previously and to still get some exercise. I found the Fatigue and Breathlessness Group at IOM Hospice very helpful and referrals can be made by GPs, consultants or McMillan nurses. Having completed the Group sessions I continue to use the Hospice gym on a weekly basis. I also find reflexology very beneficial.

I always believed cancer could happen to me as easily as it could anyone else but I was very shocked to be diagnosed with lung cancer. There is no history of lung cancer in my family. I have never smoked, nor lived in a household with smokers. To the best of my knowledge I haven’t been exposed to asbestos or radon gas either. I also never had what I considered to be the usual symptoms of lung cancer – a persistent cough, coughing up blood, chest pain, hoarseness, shortness of breath or unexplained weight loss. I had felt very tired for a long time but put that down to my busy lifestyle, not realizing it could be a symptom of cancer.

But since my diagnosis, I have found out that 10-15% of lung cancers occur in non-smokers and two thirds of non-smokers who get lung cancer are women.

Being told you have advanced lung cancer is a very difficult thing to get your head round but the care I have received in Nobles Hospital IOM, at the local Oncology Unit, Clatterbridge Hospital, the Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital and Hospice IOM has been very good.

Superb support

Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation is a great source of information and advice and I am delighted that this charity is now registered on the Isle of Man and providing support to local patients, as well as investing in research to try and combat this terrible disease.

I am also very lucky to have a wonderful husband who has been at my side throughout, family who simply could not do any more and friends who are unfailingly supportive and encouraging. If love and friendship could make me well, I would be better in no time.

I wanted to share my story to highlight that anyone can be affected by lung cancer, but also to show anyone who has just been diagnosed with incurable lung cancer that you can still live well with this disease. Yes, it changes your life and there is a sense of loss over what you can no longer do, as well as uncertainty over the future. However, it is best to focus on what you can still enjoy, make the most of each day and try to find humour where you can.”

Heather shared her story as part of our Follow my Lead campaign for Lung Cancer Awareness Month 2019. Follow my Lead aims to improve conversations around lung cancer and help those affected to address and deal with a diagnosis.