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25th January 2021

Sally’s lung cancer story

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Sally has been through a range of emotions since her lung cancer diagnosis – guilt, fear, anger and sadness. However now, a year and a half in, she is living her life and not a life limited or defined by lung cancer.

“Throughout the summer of 2019, I was treated at my local surgery for a supposed allergy.  I had a persistent cough and increasing breathlessness, symptoms which now seem obvious indicators of lung cancer. However, as a former smoker (albeit it not having smoked for many years) with a clear sounding chest, an allergic reaction to that year’s high pollen count was considered the most likely explanation. 

It was in early September when I got the phone call telling me that a recent chest x-ray showed that I had a shadow on my lung.  That was a real punch in the stomach moment.  Naively, I had never really considered that there was anything seriously wrong with me and the news was devastating.

Apart from misguided, though I guess inevitable, Google searches which revealed dire prognoses, I shut down all physical activity and found a numb place.  I watched daytime TV quiz shows which were unlikely to throw up any unexpected emotional challenges and took my phone to bed with me so that I could read mindless social media posts rather than lie awake with my less than rosy thoughts.

A team to rely on

From the initial phone call onwards, the NHS sprang into action: blood tests, CT scans, lymph biopsy and hospital appointments all carried out with maximum efficiency and excellent patient care.  In October, I had my first appointment with my oncologist; she is a wonderfully approachable person, as is the specialist lung cancer nurse who works alongside her. I have four grown up sons but live alone so I am so grateful to have this perfect pair to hold my hand though the ordeal.

Telling my sons was the hardest part of this whole experience, eased only slightly by the knowledge that they all have wonderful, supportive partners. A large part of this was the guilt of having smoked, and even though I had not smoked for many years, I still beat myself up about it.

I was also fearful about how much time I had left with them and shied away from finding out how long I had to live. However, I was told that the prognosis for lung cancer patients had recently improved and that I could expect to live for years rather than, as I’d feared, months.

Originally, I was prescribed chemotherapy and immunotherapy, but further analysis of my biopsy revealed that the cancer was caused by a mutating gene and I was ALK+.  One bonus of this was that I no longer needed chemotherapy and immunotherapy and instead was prescribed a targeted therapy – Alectinib.

The tablets had recently received NICE approval and, so far, have been wonderful, little capsules of magic!  My appetite returned almost immediately, and my cough lessened significantly within days.  My breathlessness, although still with me a bit, is manageable and I can now walk for up to four miles a day – as long as it’s on the flat – and in May, I celebrated my 70th birthday, a birthday which in September the previous year I had not expected to see.

An opportunity to reconnect

Diagnosis made me feel very alone.  I didn’t know anyone with cancer, let alone lung cancer, but lockdown has reconnected with others in an unexpected way.  A lot of my friends live on their own and we are all sharing the experience of isolation and the anxiety that the virus brings. I try not to plan for longer than two weeks ahead and this seems like an appropriate strategy for dealing with covid.  Like so many others, I miss seeing my family; I love the videos I receive of my grandchildren aged 8, 6 and 4 playing and ache with sadness that I can’t give them a cuddle.

There are many other aspects to having cancer, especially those concerning leaving my family and of them coming to terms with my no longer being around, but I am coping better than I ever imagined I could.  I don’t feel that I’m fighting or battling the disease, rather that I am managing to achieve a quality of life which is not defined, or limited unnecessarily, by the cancer. 

I may on occasion curse Covid for chipping away at whatever time I have left, and I recognise that my health could take a tumble at any time, but I definitely feel that there is a good life to be lived after a cancer diagnosis.”