Linda Hill was diagnosed with a non-small cell lung cancer, but she’s feeling pretty good about life thanks to immunotherapy. These drugs are revolutionizing the way some cancers are treated, giving patients a new lease on life.
PAIN POINTS TO TROUBLE
For Linda, it all began with severe pain in her left shoulder radiating down her arm. “It had just snowed in Springfield. I was having company for Thanksgiving dinner, so I went out to shovel. Later that day, I had back pain. I thought that I might have a pinched nerve from shoveling earlier,” Linda says.
The pain kept her awake at night and made her irritable during the day. “I asked my doctor to order an X-ray for me since I was so miserable, and the pain just wasn’t going away.”
Then the call came. Linda’s doctor wanted her to come into the office right away to discuss the results of her test. “The next day in his office, my doctor gave me the bad news. They had found a tumor on my lung. It was a big slap in the face,” Linda says.
Her first thoughts were about her son, Daniel. “He had already lost his father to lung cancer, and now I had to break this news to him. I was devastated. But once I got over the shock, everything started to clear, and things happened quickly,” Linda explains.
ABOUT LUNG CANCER
Non-small cell lung cancer, like Linda’s, is the most common type of lung cancer and usually grows and spreads more slowly that small cell lung cancer.
Cigarette smoking causes most lung cancers. The more cigarettes you smoke per day and the earlier you started smoking, the greater your risk of lung cancer.
High levels of pollution, radiation and asbestos exposure may also increase risk, as well as a family history of the disease.
THE TREATMENT SHE NEEDED, CLOSE TO HOME
Linda had several appointments with Baystate Medical Center doctors, including a thoracic surgeon. She learned that because of the tumor’s location, surgery would not be the best option for her. She also saw oncologists Dr. John McCann and Dr. Brian Acker, both of the Baystate Regional Cancer Program.
Then came CT scans, a PET scan and a brain MRI scan. Unfortunately, the scans confirmed that the cancer had spread from the lung to the adrenal glands.
“Everything was moving so fast, but I was assured that it was all about getting me the treatment that I needed in a timely fashion,” Linda said.
Linda began her treatment with radiation to her lung and spine to decrease the size of the tumor and relieve her pain. Her pain improved, but the cancer was still active in other parts of her body. She needed more than just radiation.
“I initially started Linda on a pill that targeted a specific abnormality in her tumor. She felt well while taking the pill, but after several months, CT scans showed the cancer had grown,” explains Dr. McCann.
Another biopsy showed that her tumor was made up of two cell types that created a more complicated picture.
CHOOSING TREATMENT, DESPITE AN UNWANTED SIDE EFFECT
“Dr. McCann told me that he and the team of doctors involved in my case had studied my scans more. He explained that another type of chemotherapy might be better. However, the not-so-good news was that he expected me lose my hair. I started to cry,” she shares.
“The oncology nurse told me choosing treatment would be entirely up to me. My son looked at me and said, ‘Your hair will grow back. What’s more important, your hair or your life?’” Linda says.
Linda chose the treatment—and a wig.
She learned about Lolly's Locks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing high-quality wigs to cancer patients suffering hair loss as a side effect of chemotherapy.
"I went online to learn more about Lolly's Locks, decided to fill out an application and soon after learned that I would be getting a wig," Linda recalls.
Other than the loss of her hair, Linda had few problems during her chemotherapy treatments. “I was given medication to help with any nausea from the chemotherapy, so that I could continue to eat and remain healthy,” Linda says.
Throughout her chemotherapy treatment, Linda kept herself busy as she suggested that others try to do. “I was slightly tired on some days, but still managed to get myself into work and do my job.”
IMMUNOTHERAPY BRINGS HOPE
Despite the aggressive chemotherapy course, her cancer continued to grow. Linda met with Dr. McCann and he explained that, once again, a different strategy to fight the cancer would be needed.
He suggested immunotherapy—medicine given intravenously to activate the body’s immune system to fight the cancer. It is being used in several cancer types, including advanced metastatic lung cancer.
Overtime, immunotherapy worked to slow the progression of cancer. “Her cancer is now quiet and in remission. Plus, Linda has had few side effects and has continued to work and lead an active life,” says Dr. McCann.
When Linda goes to Baystate’s D’Amour Center for Cancer Care for monitoring or treatment, she says, “I know all the nurses and staff. It’s like old home week. You have your own special nurse, and they’re all nice.”
LIVING WITH LUNG CANCER
Though Linda’s cancer is not cured, immune therapy is successfully controlling her cancer without disrupting her life. Dr. McCann and other oncologists at Baystate and throughout the country are hopeful that this treatment option will help more patients with different kinds of cancer.
“I told myself, 'This is my ballgame and I’m going to win.’ You need to maintain a positive attitude when fighting cancer. I’m not going to lie, there are going to be some down days, but you just have to keep yourself busy. Knock on wood, things have run very smoothly for me,” Linda says.
“When the end of the day comes, I may be a little tired, but I feel good and life is great.”
Learn more about lung cancer and Baystate's Lung Cancer Screening Program.