February 4, 2023

Filipino Guardian

Sentinels of Filipino Free Press

Getting stage 3 lung cancer for Christmas just made me love the holidays more

As I said about Erica Rimlinger

After two seasons of exhaustion with wheezing that came and went, I finally sat in my doctor’s office looking at an X-ray of my lungs. The doctor said it was pneumonia. I looked closely at the black and white screen. There was a spot in the center of my left lung, a white area the size of a fist. That’s not good, I thought. It was two days before Christmas. I was reasonably convinced the spot was cancer, but I had other things to do.

Meanwhile, my home in Charlotte, North Carolina, was filling up with my family: my husband and three children, ages 21, 24, and 25, getting ready for the vacation. Although I hadn’t received my official diagnosis yet, I was pretty sure what I saw on my lungs that day was a tumor. It wasn’t a small one.

Cancer runs like an outlaw through my family. For this reason, I have always tried to make conscious choices in my life, such as healthy eating and exercise. I got my mammograms and colonoscopies. I was 18 when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, which eventually took her life. I knew all too well what it was like to hear the news and have unasked concerns and mysterious fears. I knew what questions my children would ask because I had asked those questions once.

Since there were no answers yet, I saw no point in raising a problem with no name and no plan for a solution. I went home with antibiotics for my pneumonia and decided not to tell anyone what I saw on the x-ray. My family knew I was ill, so they probably attributed my calm mood to my pneumonia. As scared as I was, I wouldn’t put that extra stress on them.

I refused to accept that I had cancer until a doctor said it out loud. A theoretical tumor wouldn’t ruin Christmas. That wasn’t the memory I wanted to create for this vacation.

The children and my husband took care of me during the holidays and slightly scolded me for not going to the doctor earlier. During the summer we had spent a lot of time at the beach, and the whole time I could hardly breathe. I thought I had allergies or that the humidity was just making me sick. This fall I had my usual hay fever and allergies, but I got through Thanksgiving and December. By then, my husband finally convinced me to see my doctor. “I’ll get antibiotics,” I thought. “I’ll just get rid of this.” It didn’t feel urgent. I didn’t feel or look like the people in the movies: I wasn’t coughing up blood into a handkerchief. I was just tired and panting.

October 2022 (Photo/Rusty Williams)

Screenings, scans, appointments and bronchoscopies, which led to a biopsy, began on the first Monday after the holidays. The biopsy caused complications, including a pleural effusion, which meant I had a gallon of fluid in my lungs. My lungs collapsed and landed me in the emergency room. That day was my daughter’s 25th birthday, which put another family vacation in jeopardy.

My first official diagnosis was bleaker than it would end up being. I was told I probably had stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. The situation was becoming more real by the minute. I felt numb inside. I still looked like myself in the mirror: How could I have lung cancer?

After further testing, my diagnosis was revised to level 3. In the summer of 2017, the operation and treatment were completed and there were no signs of illness. On July 3rd I celebrated Independence Day early by having my chemotherapy port removed. I was told to get on with my life and to come back for a follow up every three months. After the whirlwind of emotions and physical damage, I set out to recover and start the upcoming holiday season with a whole new “normal”.

I found a support group for lung cancer survivors. There I learned about genomic biomarkers and the role they play in a person’s response to cancer treatment. My doctors told me I had no biomarkers, but after getting a second opinion and requesting the test, I found out about my KRAS biomarker mutation, which is common in people with lung, colon, and pancreatic cancer.

I wanted to find others like me, so I started an online community called KRAS Kickers. The group helps us connect with each other and learn how biomarkers can help us get more effective cancer treatment. It’s a good thing. I’ve had five recurrences in five years – and the knowledge I’ve gained has helped me recover every time.

The holidays now have a new meaning for me and my family. Thanksgiving, which has always been my favorite holiday, is more grateful than ever. And Christmas is a time to realize what a gift life is. It brings happiness to think how much more I can appreciate my family and friends.

The first Christmas after my diagnosis was the Christmas I feared I would never see. We celebrated with a huge party. Everyone was invited, even my surgeon – and he came. The past year has been the toughest of my life, but it has also shown me what an amazing community of support I have around me. The relationships I formed with friends and community members grew stronger and deeper as a result of my battle with lung cancer. Rather than spoiling this holiday, Cancer has made us more aware that every holiday, day and minute is a chance to celebrate every single blessing we have.

Do you have a real woman, own real stories you want to share? Let us know.

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