My name is Heather Hogan and I live in Woodstock, NB. In September 2012 when I was 52, I was diagnosed with stage 3A Non-Small Cell Adenocarcenoma. My cancer was found by accident after a CT scan of my abdomen. My abdomen was fine but the radiologist noticed a small shadow in the bottom lobe of my right lung. Because I had no symptoms or didn't fit the criteria of a lung cancer candidate, the doctors adopted a wait and see regiment. I had two follow up CT scans as well as a PET scan and doctors felt it was just a scar of some kind suggesting a scan in one year. Did I smoke? Yes, but in my younger years. I had quit smoking over 20 years before. This was not supposed to happen to me.
One year later, the shadow had grown. The size and location made it impossible to biopsy so I was scheduled for a lung resection. The tumor was in fact cancerous. In October 2012, I re-entered the hospital to have the right bottom lobe completely removed. My thorasic surgeon in Fredericton was fairly confident that the cancer was contained in the lobe but decided to remove several lymph nodes near the lobe. Unfortunately, cancerous cells were found in the lymph nodes. My tumor was not tested for mutations and in NB they don't typically don't test for many mutations which is a problem because there are so many new drugs being approved each year.
A course of treatment was outlined by my oncologist and oncology radiologist in Saint John. On the last day of December 2012 I began my first of four rounds of chemotherapy. On the first day of week one, I received Cisplatin and Navelbine. The first day of the second week I had Navelbine and the third week was reserved for rest and blood work. This cycle was to be repeated four times.
The whole thing sounded quite scary but I was staring at the unknown. My first round was to be done in Saint John but the remaining treatments could be done in Woodstock.
Day one treatment in SJ went fairly smoothly until just near the end. I began to feel burning in my arm which the nurses felt was just that the drugs were so strong but my veins were struggling with them. It was suggested that I try the other arm the next time. After that first treatment, I took all of the anti-nausea drugs they prescribed as well as steroids for several days. I hated the steroids which made me feel "wound up".
Besides feeling a bit under the weather for a day or so, I handled the first cycle pretty well. Round two began in the other arm. There was no burning that time but my arm and shoulder hurt for a week. I also noticed that the vein in my first arm had really darkened.
The nurses at my local hospital suggested that perhaps my veins were not that good for chemo and thought that perhaps a Pic line might be helpful to me. This was a great idea. Arrangements were made to have this inserted in Fredericton. Having the Pic line meant that my bloodwork could be done from that point and I came to realize that it could also be used to give me extra fluids after treatments.
As my second round started, I learned that I couldn't drink all the fluids that everyone recommended I drink. First of all, I didn't feel well enough to drink a lot and secondly, I didn't like to drink much at the best of times. After a lot of discomfort with constipation, I began getting extra fluids both during treatments and for several days after, all through my Pic line.
After my second treatment, my blood count was low. My third treatment was delayed in hopes that my body couldn repair itself but that didn't happen. I ended up needing an injection of Neulasta to help my body manufacture more white blood cells. Thank goodness for insurance because the Neulasta shot was $2800. It did the job and I was able to have my third round. Unfortunately, I had the same problem with my blood count and I needed another Neulasta shot. I finished my fourth round of chemo at the end of March 2013.
It was determined that I should let my body heal for a month before beginning 25 radiation treatments on the area where the lymph nodes had been.
The effects of chemotherapy seemed to increase with each treatment. By the third and fourth rounds, I would feel like I had been hit by a truck for the week after my day one combination of the two drugs. I lost about thiry pounds between not wanting to eat and the anxiety of being diagnosed with this killer cancer. I had been given the statistics when I was diagnosed and they terrified me. As a wife, mother, daughter, sister and teacher, I had so much to live for and the diagnosis seemed so unfair.
Prior to beginning my treatments, I was sure that I would lose my hair so I cut it short and invested in my wig. I didn't end up needing the wig but my hair did get quite thin. Between thinning hair and my weight lose, I looked like a cancer patient even though people would tell me how great I looked.
My body got a chance to rest and "heal" during the month of April 2013 and at the beginning of May, 2013 I began my 25 radiation treatments (Monday to Friday for 5 weeks) in Moncton. I went to Moncton because my family has a cottage near Shediac and I felt that being by the water would do me good. My parents and dog came with me and my family was able to visit on the weekends. Radiation treatments each day took about 13 minutes. After the initial "marking" of my chest the treatments were very quick and I had no issues with the radiation. I had heard that I would be very tired but that didn't seem to be a problem for me. The only issue I had from the radiation was and still is burning in my esophagus.
On June 3, 2013, I walked out of the hospital, after finishing my final treatment, with my husband without and fanfare. After living with a schedule of appointments and treatments, I no longer had that. It was a very weird feeling and somewhat unsettling so, I went back to work for the last couple of weeks of the school year. I had a very strong need to do something "normal".
Since June 2013, I have been very fortunate to be clear. I started with scans every 3 months which then moved to every 6 months. Even that change was difficult. What if something appeared in those months? My anxiety over upcoming scans has not changed but I think I hide it better. The only person who can see it would be my husband. I begin worrying weeks and perhaps a couple of months before the scan.
Labour day weekend has recently passed. It marks the date of my first surgery and my rollercoaster ride. As of last June, 2016, I retired from 32 years of teaching. I left a job I loved on my terms, which was important to me and I also let myself dream of events in the future. When this whole thing began, I didn't look past the day I was in and cried for the things I would probably miss. I made no plans. I just needed to get through the day.
The medical part of my story is similar to many but there are also some things I did just to survive. When I was diagnosed, I did something I never thought I would do. I went to a counselor. As a very strong person, this was something I couldn't figure out how to handle. My counselor helped me with my fears, my anger and gave me ideas to help me cope. I learned to meditate, took yoga, had reikki treatments, acupuncture treatments and massages. I also went to my doctor to get some medication to help me sleep and deal with my anxiety. I slowly went into fighting mode although I had plenty of days where I cried. My husband would come home from work to find that I was an emotional wreck. We would talk, cry some more and begin the next day. I prayed a lot and still do that. I also have continued to recognize that I have been traumatized by this disease which means that I need to continue to find ways to deal with it. I worry that it will come back and each time I hear about someone being diagnosed with cancer, any cancer, I relive the whole thing. When someone dies from cancer, I worry that I will be next. At least now, I acknowledge that thought and then try to move on. I know that I have no control over this disease and work hard to keep my head on straight finding lots of good in each day. I value life and it's gifts much more.
Now that I am retired, I have begun my "job" as a lung cancer advocate. I am contacting people to try and educate them about lung cancer and am trying to be a support to others who have been diagnosed with cancer. With two other cancer survivors, we have begun a cancer support group in our area and are trying to give back to our community which has been so supportive. NB needs to move more quickly in it's treatment of lung cancer so as patients, we need to be asking more questions and demanding that we have access to the same treatments as patients do in larger centers of the country.
As I tell my story, I have to acknowledge the role my husband played in my treatment and continues to play to this day. Besides being my caregiver and confident, my husband attended my appointments and treatments with the exception of radiation. He is the one who did the research, go copies of all of my reports, read them, studied them and asked the questions at my appointments. I did well to keep myself from drowning in fear. I would recommend that anyone going through cancer should have their own advocate. It is so helpful to have a second set of ears and someone to do the footwork for you. I don't know what I would have done without him.
Life is full of stuff. None of us knows if or when something is going to happen so it's one day at a time, one step at a time. I am available to anyone going through this journey and am willing to give you support, a shoulder or phone call if you need to talk. There are also a lot of facebook support groups out there that have been truly helpful to me.
Before this happened to me, I was sliding through a good life, never thinking this would happen to me. It did and I continue to battle every day.