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Lung cancer patient Linda Hill has reasons to smile today

patient linda hillDiagnosed with a non-small cell lung cancer, Linda Hill now has reasons to smile again thanks to a new class of drugs. These new drugs are revolutionizing the way some cancers are treated and giving patients a new lease on life.

It all began for the Springfield woman with severe pain in her left shoulder radiating down her arm.

“It had just snowed and I was having company for Thanksgiving dinner and went out to shovel because I didn’t want them to fall. By the end of the day I was experiencing back pain and thought that I might have a pinched nerve from shoveling earlier,” Linda said.

“I couldn’t sleep. There was no position that would give me comfort both asleep and awake from the pain, and I began to get irritable,” she added.

A visit to her primary care physician

At the urging of her boss, who was sorry to see Linda in so much pain, she found herself on the doorsteps of her primary care physician.

“My doctor wanted to prescribe pain medication, but I’m not one to take pills and preferred that he order an x-ray for me since I was so miserable and the pain just wasn’t going away,” Linda said.

Then the call came at work. It was Linda’s doctor who wanted her to come into the office right away to discuss the results of her test.

“The red light went off and I told myself, ‘This is not good.’ I called my sister Nancy in tears and the next day in his office my doctor gave me the bad news. They had found a tumor on my lung. It was a real big slap in the face,” Linda said.

Concern for her son

Her first thoughts upon learning her diagnosis turned to her 23-year-old, Daniel.

“He had just lost his father five years ago to lung cancer, and now I had to break this news to him. I was devastated and could have dwelled on the news thinking I was going to die. But, once I got over the shock, then everything started to clear,” Linda said.

Things began happening very quickly. Linda had several appointments with Baystate Medical Center doctors, including a thoracic surgeon. She learned that because of the tumor’s location, part of which was resting on her spine, it was inoperable. She also saw oncologists Dr. John McCann and Dr. Brian Acker (chief of Radiation Oncology), 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. I was afraid that they weren’t telling me something, but I was assured that it was all about getting me the treatment that I needed in a timely fashion,” Linda said.

More than just radiation

Linda began her treatments with several weeks of radiation to her lung and spine to decrease the size of the tumor and relieve her pain. Following the treatment, her pain markedly improved but the cancer was still active in other areas. She needed more than just radiation. “I initially started Linda on a pill that targeted a specific molecular abnormality that had been identified in the original biopsy of her lung tumor. She felt well while taking the pill, but after several months, CT scans showed the cancer had grown,” said Dr. McCann.

A repeat biopsy was ordered to enable further molecular testing, and the new biopsy showed that her tumor was made up of two cell types that created a more complicated picture.

“Dr. McCann told me that he and the team of doctors involved in my case were studying my scans and reports further and felt another type of chemotherapy would actually be better. However, the not so good news was that now I would be losing my hair. I started to cry and 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 said.

Linda chose the treatment....and a wig.

Lolly's Locks to the rescue

"While I was given a prescription to get a wig, my insurance refused saying it was "not medically necessary."

Soon after, Linda learned about Lolly's Locks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing high-quality wigs to cancer patients suffering hair loss as 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 said.

Other than the loss of her hair, Linda had few problems during her chemotherapy treatments, which ended in December 2015.

“I was given medication to help with any nausea from the chemotherapy, so that I could continue to eat and remain healthy. The thing is that I’m really not a big eater, but I forced myself to eat more. I really only lost about five pounds, if that,” Linda said.

Linda's Christmas present

“My Christmas present was to be my final chemo treatment on Dec. 23, and when I learned that wasn’t going to happen, I began to cry, thinking something was wrong. But, they told me that simply my platelet count was low, which is a common side effect of the chemo. But, a week later, I went back in and was told they were good, so I finished my chemotherapy after the holidays,” she added.

Throughout her chemotherapy treatment, Linda kept herself busy as she suggested that others try to do.

“I was never a big television watcher to sit home in front of the screen. I was slightly tired on some days, but still managed to get myself into work and do my job,” said Linda, who has worked with the public for 30 years, now as a customer service rep at Rejean Remillard Insurance in Feeding Hills.

In January of last year, Linda had repeat CT scans and despite completing the aggressive chemotherapy course, her cancer continued to grow. She met with Dr. McCann and he explained that, once again, a different strategy to fight the cancer would be needed. He discussed the use of immunotherapy with nivolumab. Nivolumab, marketed as OPDIVO®, is a new class of medicine given intravenously to activate the body’s immune system to fight the cancer. It is being used in several different cancer types, including advanced metastatic lung cancer.

Immunotherapy offered hope

Linda began her nivolumab treatments over a year ago, and as the months progressed her cancer began to diminish.

“Her cancer is now quiet and in remission, and Linda has tolerated the treatment without side effects and has continued to work and lead an active life,” said Dr. McCann.

Today Linda continues to go to Baystate’s D’Amour Center for Cancer Care for two hours every two weeks, where they administer nivolumab intravenously to her.

“I know all the nurses and staff. It’s like old home week. I go in between doctor’s appointments. You have your own special nurse, they’re all nice, and mine is Nancy Price,” said Linda.

Though Linda’s cancer is not cured, the new immune therapy is successfully controlling it without an adverse impact on her life. Dr. McCann and other oncologists at Baystate and throughout the country are hopeful that patients like Linda, who respond well to new immune therapy drugs for extended periods, may continue to do so through the use of the patient’s own immune system.

Smoking and cancer

Cigarette smoking causes most lung cancers, and Linda, 56, was a smoker who started the habit back in her late teens. 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.

“As far as I know, lung cancer doesn’t run in my family, and both of my parents died of heart attacks,” Linda said.

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, the most aggressive form of lung cancer, which makes up about 20% of all lung cancers.

“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. I wasn’t sick from my chemotherapy or radiation, and never missed a day of work. I’ve been on Opdivo for a little over a year now and so far so good,” Linda said.

“When the end of the day comes, I may be a little tired, but I feel good and life is great,” she added.

Learn more about lung cancer and Baystate's Lung Cancer Screening Program.