Lynne Cameron

Stronger Than My Body Gives Me Credit For! A Cancer Story

In the time leading up to my cancer diagnosis in December 2018, I knew something was amiss. I had been experiencing chest pains, and I was constantly tired and out of breath. It had come to the point that I couldn’t even navigate one flight of stairs without pausing for a rest. For someone who typically had an abundance of energy, this was troubling and unsettling.

I met with my general practitioner several times that year, and the frequency of those visits picked up as the summer months turned into autumn. Initially, she suggested that stress and lack of sleep were likely to blame. As time went on though, and as the symptoms persisted and worsened, it seemed clear that something else was happening.

One day, I had such intense chest pains that I dropped everything at the office and went to the ER, not knowing that I would never return. I had worked my last day.

After completing various tests at the ER, one of the attending physicians came with news: my lungs had been invaded by cancer. In her words, it was “everywhere.” I was shocked. Stunned. I’m in the non/never-smokers category. How could this be? I later learned that up to 20% of people who die from lung cancer have never smoked or used any other form of tobacco. Follow-up tests showed that I had stage 4 non small cell lung cancer, the most advanced form of the disease. The cancer had spread to my bones. Biomarker testing revealed that I had a mutation known as EGFR, which causes rapid cell growth and helps lung cancer metastasize elsewhere in the body.

Despite all of this information, I had yet to truly process and understand the extent and severity of the situation. I told myself that I would likely need to do chemo and, yes, the next six months would be hard – but I would ultimately be okay and become cancer-free again. I quickly learned that I wasn’t dealing with an unwelcome and temporary visitor, but a new life-long companion. I was told that this cancer wasn’t curable, and I had great difficulty accepting this reality.

I wasn’t the only one reeling. My son, a grade 12 student at the time, took the news hard. For most of his life, it has been just the two of us. We have a strong bond. Neither of us can imagine the loss of the other. My dad, who had lost his wife – my mom – to kidney cancer some 10 years earlier, was distraught. As a parent, I could understand. The potential loss of a child, at any age, can seem unbearable.  At the end of the day, each of us had to cope with the news and move forward. And that is exactly what we have done. As a single mother for many years, I understood well that giving up was not an option. And so, partly with no choice, and partly with a determination to survive, I threw myself into the fight.

My oncologist, based at the Ottawa Cancer Centre, has been fantastic! He’s been relentless in searching out new treatments. When the first targeted therapy stopped working, he sought another, going to great lengths to identify options. I was then placed on a new drug, which worked for some time, but also became ineffective, sooner than expected. While disappointed, we weren’t done. My oncologist pushed to have me enrolled in a clinical trial out of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. In December of last year, I received the first of several treatments. And great news! Within six weeks, my tumors have shrunk to half the size they were.

I’m excited and filled with new hope – hope that I may have a shot at being there when my son graduates from university, when he gets his first “real” job and when he marries and starts a family.
To me, this kind of progress is further evidence of how critically important lung cancer research is to extending the lives of thousands of people every year. I can’t help but wonder where we might be today if there wasn’t such a disparity and inequity in funding for lung cancer versus other forms of the disease. We might be further down the road towards more advanced treatments and possibly even a cure.

I am lucky. I haven’t had to face this fight on my own. I have an exceptional support network. A group of friends – my cancer army, as I call them. When I was first diagnosed, they rallied around me and my son. At the time, I was so ill that I could not take care of him or myself. At my weakest, they became my strength. My kitchen became command central with a whiteboard detailing all of my medical appointments and who would drive me, my medications and when I needed to take them, etc. They shopped for groceries, made meals, cleaned and did laundry and watched over me. They were there for me, totally. Without them, I don’t know how I would have gotten through that moment in time. Since then, they have stood by me – through all of the highs and lows. Each time we hit a valley, they rally around once again and help me climb out. Their unconditional support and love has made me a better person, and I’m grateful.

I’m also thankful for my family. Though they live elsewhere, and can’t visit right now because of the pandemic, their constant contact is a reassurance. Few days go by when I don’t speak with my dad over the phone. Sometimes, just hearing someone’s voice is enough. I also appreciate my cousin who has gone above and beyond, not because anyone expected her to, but because she wanted to.

My advice to others: let people help. If you are somehow not fortunate to have family or friends who can be with you along this journey, seek out a lung cancer support group. I belong to one, and find it so helpful because the group members understand what I am going through.

I encourage anyone who may read this to become aware of the early symptoms of lung cancer and respond as quickly as possible. Be proactive. Educate yourself. Advocate for yourself. You have the right to ask questions and get answers. Your symptoms may not have reached the point where they are debilitating, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss or ignore them.

Making an early diagnosis, which could save your life, may well depend on your general practitioner or primary care physician as well. They, too, can underestimate the seriousness of symptoms – resulting in a delayed diagnosis. Misperceptions of risk associated with smoking can also be an issue. I believe we need more education and awareness, both for the public and general practitioners. I can’t help but wonder: what if my cancer had been caught earlier than stage 4?

I also can’t help but wonder where my cancer came from. Some time after my diagnosis, I had a radon gas reading taken in my home. The result was frightening, with amounts detected that were six times higher than the international standard tolerance level. Knowing this, I had a radon mitigation system installed. With radon gas as the leading environmental cause of lung cancer, I encourage everyone to have their home tested and to take action if needed.

Before living with cancer, I could check off an impressive to-do list in one day. I can’t do that anymore. I’ve had to learn to accept that it’s okay to reset expectations and break down my activities into smaller, more manageable pieces.

What keeps me going? My son and the people who are dear to me, yes. My bucket list (scuba diving in the Galapagos, walking the Comino de Santiago and visiting Eastern Europe), yes. Mostly, it’s HOPE. Hope for more quality time and opportunity to appreciate all of the little things in life. Because they truly are the big things.

I’ve learned that I am a survivor. I’ve learned that when you hit a bump in the road, hold on, grit your teeth and, as my mom used to say, carry on – because you CAN get through it.

And I’ve learned, to paraphrase a John Mayer song: I’m stronger than my body gives me credit for!

And so are we all.