AstraZeneca on The Washington Post: Heidi’s Hope: One Woman’s Journey with Stage 3 Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
When it comes to her health, Colorado resident Heidi, 57, aims to stay on the path of wellness. As a personal trainer, health educator, and lifelong health enthusiast, she enjoys being active and helping others achieve their fitness goals. But that path changed two years ago, taking her on a detour that would prove challenging every step of the way.
It started with a familiar twinge on Heidi’s left side, which reminded her of ovarian cysts that she had experienced earlier in life. This prompted her to go see her gynecologist. While a CT scan ruled out the possibility of ovarian cancer, it revealed an abnormal mass in her lung. A PET scan and biopsy later confirmed the presence of a mass in the upper left lobe of Heidi’s lung and enlarged lymph nodes in the area of her chest between both lungs. She was diagnosed with Stage 3A non-small cell lung cancer. This year alone, there are 228,820 expected new cases of lung cancer in adults in the United States. More specifically, non-small cell lung cancer is a type of lung cancer that makes up 80 to 85 percent of all lung cancer cases.
“When I was first given my diagnosis, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” recalled Heidi. “I felt fine, with no respiratory symptoms at all.”
Initially, her prognosis was grim. Her pulmonologist advised her to “put her affairs in order,” leading her to believe she didn’t have long to live. She felt like she needed to say her goodbyes to her husband, Pierre, and their three adult children. But after her MRI results showed that the cancer had not spread to her brain, she began to feel a little bit of hope.
Confronting a scary new reality head-on
After consulting with an oncologist, Heidi learned that the cancer was “locally advanced,” which means the tumor had not yet spread to distant regions of the body. As her care team started to work on Heidi’s treatment plan, she felt relief and a sense of control, something she had not felt days earlier when she was first diagnosed.
Historically, it has been challenging to treat patients like Heidi. About one-third of all non-small cell lung cancer patients are diagnosed with locally advanced Stage 3 disease that is unresectable—meaning the tumor cannot be removed with surgery. The standard of care in Heidi’s case was concurrent chemoradiation therapy (cCRT), a combination of chemotherapy given with radiation at the same time. Over the last few decades, medical advancements have improved, with more available treatment options and improved techniques to help manage and mitigate side effects.
Patients may now receive concurrent chemoradiation therapy with curative intent, rather than just delay the advancement of the disease.
After receiving several rounds of chemoradiation, she received news from her oncologist that her tumors had decreased in size. It was at that moment she started to hold her head up high at the prospect of a good outcome.
Since Heidi’s disease had not progressed following cCRT treatment, she became a candidate for immunotherapy.
Once Heidi understood her entire treatment plan and path forward, she committed to doing what was necessary to navigate through in the best way possible. With this sense of optimism, she continued to work, getting ample support from her family, friends and healthcare team.
Gratitude and hope restored
“I am a lot stronger than I thought I was,” she said. “My husband and children were also incredible in terms of caring for me, accepting my ways of coping and providing an incredible sense of support. They allowed me to be the same person I always was before my diagnosis.”
Since beginning her treatment journey, Heidi tries her best to make the most of every day. She continues to enjoy spending time outdoors and visiting with her adult children—most recently helping plan her daughter’s wedding.
“When Heidi was first diagnosed, I was devastated, our children were devastated, it felt like we had been hurled into a pit of darkness and that our future was erased,” said Pierre, a primary care physician. “I think seeing how she’s showing our children that you can live through incredible adversity and get through it, and have a life, is what sustains me the most.”
Helping others with a Stage 3 lung cancer diagnosis
Heidi also credits support and resources from patient advocacy organizations, including Lungevity and the GO2 Foundation, for helping her become better equipped, emotionally, to deal with the uncertainty that comes with a cancer diagnosis. She and Pierre have turned their new realities and awareness into action, starting with an enormous movement right in their own community.
They urge newly diagnosed patients with Stage 3 non-small cell lung cancer that cannot be removed with surgery to seek the help and motivation needed to stay informed and positive. This includes helping to shift perceptions about the stigma that comes with a lung cancer diagnosis.
“Anybody with lungs can get lung cancer,” she said. “It should be nothing to be ashamed of since this cancer does not discriminate. It is not just for people who have smoked—anyone can get this disease.”
“If I was approached by someone newly diagnosed with Stage 3 non-small cell lung cancer, I would tell them to believe there is hope after their diagnosis,” said Heidi. “Look at me and believe.”
If you or a loved one is impacted by Stage 3 non-small cell lung cancer, visit here to learn more about treating with curative intent.
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