Humans of HOAF: Lung Cancer Survivor Stories
In honor of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Vaughn welcomes three HOAF lung cancer survivors, Jim Herrick, Jennifer Bartley, and Bradley James, to share their journey and experience. Listen now to go behind the diagnosis and hear the empowering stories recounting the importance of resilience, faith, and being proactive about your healthcare.
Lastly, I think we also need to focus an update on the importance of lung cancer screening. Here in Fredericksburg, we’ve developed a very streamlined approach with a protocol for low dose chest CT screening and it really focuses on patients who are at higher risks. Anyone who is older than 55 and has a combined 30 year pack per day tobacco history is a patient who qualifies as a high risk patient for lung cancer. Please, if you do meet those criteria, please talk to your primary care physician because a low dose lung cancer CT can detect early lung cancer and really that’s the only way we’re going to have major survival outcomes is to catch cancer early and cure it. It is my pleasure to introduce Jim Herrick. We thank you so much for sharing your story with our podcast audience.
My name is Jim Herrick, and we currently live in Virginia. I forget the exact year, but I was not feeling well and I went down to the VA hospital. They couldn’t find anything. I came up here and went to a doctor who’s treating me for allergies and whatnot, and after six months of taking all his medication, nothing happened, told him it wasn’t working, so I went elsewhere. We found a young lady up here who passed me on to the cancer people. They came back and said, “Yes indeed, you do have lung and brain cancer.” Oh, here we go again. Now what? The treatment with Dr. Vaughn started with consultation, then some medication, X-rays, brain scans, MRIs. Other than taking medication every day, it’s okay. I’ve got a good appetite. I’m relatively active, but at age 84 I’m not walking as well as I used to. The relief came from knowing what was causing my discomfort. He was able to start treating right away, and I felt pretty good. I’m a survivor. Listen to your doctor and his assistants. They know what they’re doing.
Thank you Jim so much for sharing your story. Now it is my pleasure to introduce Jennifer Bartley. We thank you so much for sharing your story with our podcast audience.
My name is Jennifer and I’m from Spotsylvania, Virginia. I was diagnosed in May 2018. Beginning before I was diagnosed, I had an overall back pain for almost a year where I’d sleep with a pillow behind my back. Then I started not feeling good, like respiratory, a little bit short of breath and side pain. I went to the doctor, went to the hospital, and they wanted to do a CAT scan just to see what was going on. The rule for that hospital in particular is if you have a CAT scan they have to do a pregnancy test. It was a blood pregnancy test. Came back positive. Well my husband’s had a vasectomy and there’s just no way that could possibly happen. I hadn’t had a period for a year. They did the CAT scan. It came back and it showed that I had some fluid in my left lung, and they were treating me for pneumonia.
In the meantime we had this little freak out about what is going on. From that point on, I went to my ob gyn, my primary, trying to figure out what was going on and nothing made sense because a urine pregnancy test was negative. Then within about a week the shortness of breath got worse. I went back to my primary doctor and they gave me a penicillin shot and a steroid shot in his office because I begged not to go to the hospital. I got outside to my car and that’s when I had a really sharp pain in my back. I went back inside. They brought me to the hospital. It turned out they had to draw 1400 milliliters of fluid out of my left lung. From that point on it was just a whirlwind. Within three days I was diagnosed with lung cancer because the fluid came back positive.
I’m a supervisor at a rehabilitation center at Encompass. I’ve worked all aspects of nursing. I even worked on a cancer unit for seven years. Until I went through my personal episode, I had no idea what the patients were really going through until the other shoe was on the other foot. Dr. Bonnie Moore is my physician. It seemed like it was just walking in almost a home. Everybody just opened their arms and embraced you and helped in any way you could. Poor Dr. Moore. I guess the stubbornness and the nurse in me was, I didn’t want to take antidepressants or anti-anxiety or anything like that. She would see me. I’d cry a little bit and she says, “You’ve got to talk to me. When I see you, you don’t want to cry, but when you’re with the nurses, you tear up and you’re very anxious. We need to treat you as a whole picture. We need to treat all of the issues from not just the cancer but the anxiety and the depression and the nausea.”
She wanted to grab all the pieces from the puzzle and put them together and treat me as a whole, not just pieces. It gave me a ton of relief. The doctors, the nurses, everybody was just so openhearted and caring the whole time I was there. They allowed my family members to be involved in the care. Dr. Moore would allow, when I first got the diagnosis after the PET scans and the CAT scans and all that, I had my husband, my mother-in-law, my sister, both my sisters, everybody was there, and she allowed that. She talked to all of us as a person. My family felt really involved. They were allowed to be involved. They were allowed to ask questions. She was open to explain and to listen when they had concerns also. At one point, because it was such a difficult diagnosis and the words that we heard, no cure but treatment, that kind of thing, and she encouraged us to get a second opinion just to ease our own minds, and we did.
The second opinion we got was actually from a physician at UVA that was on the board when they did the trial medication for KEYTRUDA. The exact treatment Dr. Bonnie Moore put me on is the one that he said he’s 110% right along line with her, but she supported whatever decisions we needed at the time. My husband still says to this day, she’s one of the best doctors he’s ever worked with or been involved with. She’s amazing and so is the staff. It was a little bit scary to learn about the trial medication for the most part. Having a medical background, I understood that this could be really huge. I understood the pros versus the cons for the most part. Stepping out of my nursing shoes, I probably wouldn’t have, but with the medical background, I know what the end result used to be years ago of stage four lung cancer with Mets and it wasn’t good. Knowing that there are treatments out there that have shown the five year markers and 10 year markers we’re coming up on was positive for me.
It was good to know that there are new treatments out there and they’re willing to try them. That my second opinion physician actually was on the trial board when they tried the medication, it made me feel really comfortable. When all this was going on, I actually had signed up for a lung cancer, on Facebook, a group, and I would talk back and forth with them about different treatments or how they were feeling after this treatment or different symptoms and how to deal with different things. It really helped the support of that group. They were all over the world. You see the ones that are very positive and they post positive affirmations and that kind of thing. Then the sadness of it, you would see there are a couple of them that actually had passed away, but they were fighters and positive fighters until then. Then you see the ones that are 15 years out that had the same diagnosis that I had and it gives you hope.
It had to be after I started feeling better. My husband and I do quite a bit more together. We go places. He has a motorcycle so we ride the motorcycle to different destinations and check things out and spend more time with family. Building that relationship hasn’t been the most important as continuing the relationship with my family. They’ve been amazing. I know it’s crazy to say this, but as a nurse I used to think lung cancer were only for patients that smoke cigarettes or that were in the coal mines or work with asbestos and all that. It’s not true. I mean it happens. It’s a broad spectrum of patients with lung cancer. The awareness, I think the knowledge of knowing that there are new treatments out there and physicians like at HOAF is just, it needs to be celebrated. It needs to be celebrated for sure.
I was 110 miles an hour and I was stopped on a dime with the diagnosis. I was working 50, 60 hour weeks and I was constantly moving. Then when this happened, it was like I didn’t know what to do with myself. The support from my family, my one sister would take me to every appointment or every treatment and my other sister would be calling to try to get equipment and supplies and everything. Once the treatment started, like I said, I worked on a cancer unit for seven years and you’d have patients that say they were in pain and they just felt awful. You understand the word pain. You understand the meaning of the word pain and you understand the nausea and just feeling bad until you’re in those shoes. The cancer pain I guess after getting chemo is a pain that I could never explain. It literally felt like something was in my body eating away at me. The pain was horrific and my mindset was like I need to say my goodbyes while I can.
Trying to spend time and do things that I never thought I would get the chance to do was on my mind also, but at the same time in the moment, the illness is what was a hundred miles an hour, if that makes any sense. I was getting chemo, and after the first one, I think I had seven or eight thoracentesis and the pain of that was horrific. Then I had my first chemo treatment. I was in the hospital after each chemotherapy treatment because the dose was just so strong. Once I got through that, the end result of knowing right now I have no evidence of disease after going through that is what’s amazing to me. I had five treatments. Each chemotherapy treatment, she had to decrease the dose because I ended up in the hospital with each because of my white count and illness.
Then I had two years of KEYTRUDA. There at the very end of my KEYTRUDA is when I was no evidence of disease. Two and a half, three years from the start to no evidence. Don’t give up and don’t give in. I always said all these years being a nurse, I was one of the ones that said, “If it happens to me, I’m not going through all that. I’m not getting all that treatment. I’m not doing it.” The fact that I got through the treatment and where I am now, there’s hope.
Thank you so much, Jennifer, for sharing your story. We are now going to move on to our next patient testimonial. It is my pleasure to introduce Bradley James, we thank you so much for sharing your story with our podcast audience.
My name is Brad, and I’m from Fredericksburg, Virginia. I was diagnosed in December 2014. I originally had a pretty bad cough and then prior to the diagnosis I started coughing up blood, which is when I went into the doctor. They did a chest x-ray and then later on they did a CAT scan, and then obviously after that they did a biopsy to determine what I had. Well, the initial x-ray and CAT scan were through my primary physician and then I was referred to Dr. Vaughn after that. I had a good experience with Dr. Vaughn. Of course, at that point I was pretty concerned what was going on. I didn’t know entirely what to expect. I was surprised when it came back as lung cancer ’cause I thought maybe I had an allergy problem to begin with, which I’ve had allergies for years.
When I started coughing up blood I realized it was probably more than that. Well, it’s not a good feeling to find out you have lung cancer obviously. I had a lot of support from my wife and my family, so that does help certainly. The initial treatment was chemotherapy. I had chemotherapy in three-month sessions for nine months. The first three-month session showed an improvement. The second three-month session did not. Then they altered the chemotherapy and again, the tumor was still getting larger. At that point they switched to OPTIVO. With OPTIVO, initially it did not show an improvement initially, and I was having problems with my stomach. I was getting sick, throwing up, and eventually the physician assistant prescribed an antacid and that did the trick. I mean, it turned off that problem with my stomach right away and I started feeling better.
That’s a long term treatment. I’ve been on it for probably a little over seven years now. I get an infusion every two weeks and it’s at least stopped it. In some cases some of the CAT scan showed a reduction in the tumors. I started getting back my strength and I started feeling better over time. When they started me on the OPTIVO, it was right off the clinical trial, so it was at that time a pretty new treatment. For whatever reason, it worked well for me. It’s pretty much back to normal health wise. I feel like I did before I got sick. I mean, I used to run before I got sick. I don’t run anymore. I do a lot of walking, but other than that, I feel about what I felt like before I ever got sick eight years ago. I hope it continues. That’s about all I can say about that.
I guess for me, if I had been a little more aware of it with the family history of lung cancer, it probably would’ve behooved me to have chest x-rays every couple of years because it’s something that sneaks up on you. I never smoked, but it still was in my family on my father’s side. Another thing that I think may have helped me was I actually had drank Kefir, which is a probiotic initially, and I think that does help with your immune system, I believe. I would recommend that. Don’t give up.
I want to thank you Bradley James, Jennifer Bartley, and Jim Herrick for their candor and grace in sharing their lung cancer journeys. It is a privilege to share these stories with our community today. If you would like to find more about lung cancer, please visit our website at hoafredericksburg.com, and please stay tuned for a deeper dive on lung cancer with an upcoming podcast with our medical experts.
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