Tammy Miller's Story
In February 2008, I noticed I was coughing more frequently than usual. But I wasn’t worried. I had suffered from seasonal allergies most of my adult life and this cough did not seem any different from my past experiences. At age 42, I was a nonsmoker, I exercised, and I loved to get outdoors. A couple of months passed and I went about my daily life with the coughing continuing off and on.
In April of 2008, my husband and I took a trip to Jamaica where we had a wonderful time. Although I was feeling tired and needed to take lots of naps, I thought my fatigue was due to my aortic stenosis (narrowing of the heart’s aortic valve), a condition I had lived with for several years. However, prior to my trip the cardiologist told me that my heart was okay and wouldn’t need surgery in the near future. After returning home, I decided to get to the bottom of my cough. My primary care physician ordered a chest X-ray which showed what appeared to be pneumonia in both my lungs. I was puzzled by this diagnosis because I had always believed that symptoms of pneumonia included fever and coughing up sputum. I told myself, though, “Well, I am not the doctor, and my physician has much more experience with this sort of thing.” So I followed the doctor’s orders, completed a round of antibiotics, and went back to my everyday life. But the cough continued.
During the last two weeks of June, while I was away on another trip, I noticed a rattling/crackling sound coming from my chest while I was sleeping. Since I was feeling short of breath as well, I wondered if I was suffering from asthma. After I returned home, I went back to see my physician. Again he told me that I had pneumonia, but I was sure I did not. I begged him to examine me more closely and listen specifically for the sounds coming from my lungs while I was lying on my back. After he did, he said, “I have never heard anything quite like this.” He ordered me to undergo a lung function test and CT scan. While driving home after the tests, I received a call from my doctor. “Go back to the Emergency Room immediately,” he said. “You either have lung cancer or Tuberculosis, and you must be quarantined if it is the latter.” I was in shock. But cancer was not my main worry – I just knew I did not have cancer. I believed I had Tuberculosis. For months I had been coughing, and I was so scared and worried that during all that time, I had been infecting my friends, family, and coworkers.
After more tests a few days later, my doctor informed me that I did not have TB. I was so relieved to know that I had not infected other people that the realization that I had lung cancer did not automatically sink in. I heard the doctor say cancer, but at the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. After a biopsy of my lymph nodes, I was diagnosed with stage IV adenocarcinoma. Both of my lungs had multiple tumors. The cancer was in lymph nodes in my chest and I had one brain tumor. At the time I remember thinking, “Well, this is just a large bump in the road.” I knew my life was going to be inconvenienced, and it was not going to be a picnic to take chemotherapy, lose my hair, be sick, and experience a lot of side effects. But not once did it ever occur to me that the cancer was so serious that I would die from it. I just wanted to begin my treatments so I could finally get better.
Since September 2008 I have been on continuous chemotherapy. I had stererotactic radiation to my brain tumor and to the larger tumor on my right lung. I have undergone several thoracentesis procedures, and I’ve been hospitalized several times for infections, blood clots in my lungs and legs, and other medical problems stemming from chemotherapy. I am glad to report that over time, all of my tumors have slowly become smaller.
In November 2009, my husband and I attended a lung cancer education seminar where for the first time I met volunteers from Lung Cancer Connection. “This is what I have been looking for!” I told my husband. “Someone who knows how we feel and is working to change public perception of lung cancer.” With the strength and encouragement of my husband, a few days later I walked in the first Lung Cancer Connection 5K fun run/walk, and I ran in the second annual 5K in 2010.
What shocked me most about having lung cancer is how unsympathetic society is to lung cancer patients. People with lung cancer are treated as if they deserve their cancer, as if it was self-inflicted. There is very little public support for lung cancer patients and their families. Research into better treatments and tests for earlier diagnoses is grossly underfunded. If I had been diagnosed sooner, I may have been declared cancer-free by now.
The above picture of me was taken in Jamaica. It is still hard to believe that just a few months afterward I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.