22nd July 2020

Norma McAra

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“I was first diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013. It all started when I went to my doctor with an unrelated problem and I just happened to mention that I found myself getting a bit breathless when I was walking up hill. I wasn’t overly concerned; I had put on a bit of weight, so put it down to that.

The doctor, however, was brilliant, referring me for an x-ray. Two days later, I received a phone call inviting me to two appointments – one for a CT scan and the other at the respiratory department. Even then, I wasn’t too worried, so much so that I went to the appointments alone. I had given up smoking about six years earlier so thought maybe I had COPD. Cancer, after all, was something that happened to other people.

Only it didn’t. It happened to me. I had stage four non-small cell lung cancer.

I was in shock. It just didn’t really hit me. After I got the news, I went and did the shopping! It wasn’t until I got home that it started to sink in, and I broke down.

Those initial days and weeks were the hardest, coming to terms with the fact I had lung cancer. Then I started treatment, a combination of radio and chemotherapy. I had 4 x 4 weekly cycles of chemo and radiotherapy during cycles 2 and 3.

The treatment was hard. It was very aggressive. I lost my hair and I was utterly exhausted. There were some days where I could barely lift my head off the pillow, could barely walk into the hospital for my next treatment.

But, as hard as it was, it also gave me a goal, a focus. I had to get the end of the treatment and then, hopefully at the end, there will be good news.

Fortunately, there was. Things were looking good after the treatment. I had quarterly check-ups, then six-monthly. I was just about to have my first annual check-up in 2016 when I coughed up blood. I had been suffering from a virus so thought, and hoped, it was linked to that. My doctor was taking no chances and sent for an x-ray.

The x-ray came back clear. Then CT scan picked up something, but doctors thought it could be scar tissue from the radiotherapy. I clung onto that hope. However, a bronchoscopy dashed all hope; the cancer was back.

I went back onto chemo and, as well as losing my hair again, my toenails fell off too. Despite all this, I had my goal again – get to the end of the treatment and hope for good news. Only this time, it didn’t come. The tumour continued to grow, and my oncologist decided to stop the treatment. She said there was no point in continuing because it wasn’t helping, and it was making me so ill.

Until then, I had never asked my doctors how long I had to live. I was told that, without any more treatment, I would have two years. However, there was another option – immunotherapy.

I had asked about immunotherapy when I was first diagnosed, back in 2013, but it hadn’t been approved then. But now it was; it had been approved just a few days earlier.

My oncologist told me to take some time to think about it. I was already sure I wanted to try the immunotherapy but went and found my lung cancer nurse, Susan, who’d been with me from the start. In fact, it was Susan who first told me I had lung cancer.

I felt so much better after speaking to Susan and it confirmed what I already knew – I wanted the immunotherapy. A year of chemotherapy had left me utterly exhausted. I didn’t know if I could cope with any more side effects, so I asked Susan if I could have a break before starting immunotherapy. I had a six-week break. I went to see my niece in Whitstable and started to fix my sights on my next goal.

Immunotherapy changed my life. I went from dying of lung cancer to living with it. The only side effect I have a little sickness, but this is easily managed with half an anti-nausea tablet.

I haven’t looked back since I started on immunotherapy. Although I did have a wobble as I approached the two-year mark. Immunotherapy is only licenced for two years, so as I neared this milestone, I grew increasingly anxious.

It was around this time that I attended one of the charity’s lung cancer information days. That is when I learnt that my doctor could request, and had requested, for my treatment to be continued. I am now into my third year of treatment and feeling great.

I know I am very lucky to be on this treatment and for it to be working so well; it doesn’t work for everyone. Fortunately, the increase in the number of new treatments for lung cancer means that even if immunotherapy isn’t an option, there are many more choices, and with it so much more hope.”