Fitness + Well-being

'My annoying cough turned out to be lung cancer'

I’ve always been a pretty healthy person. I barely ever got sick—maybe once a year or so. That’s why it was so noticeable when I had this cough that went on for months. I was 28 and I didn’t really know what I had—it wasn’t really a cold, and it never fully developed into anything. I used to suffer from asthma, but it wasn't a big deal, so I thought I just had sensitive lungs.

My symptoms started to become really noticeable in early 2015. It was little things here and there—I would bend down and to pick something up, and I’d get dizzy when I stood up. Or I’d have a cough after running up the stairs or to catch the bus. And then it got worse when I came down with a fever. I started monitoring my temperature and realized it would never fully go down. It never went below 99 degrees and would get as high as 104. I had a low-grade fever at all times, and on days it got really high, I had to start taking time off work.

I basically went an entire month running a constant fever. The cough started to get a little more constant, too, and it became deeper. By March, I started getting a pain in my side from the cough. My chest never sounded or felt congested—there was never any discharge, either, so it was what people call a dry cough. But once I started getting a pain in my left side, around the ribs or waist, from the cough, I said I’d wait one more week to see if it turned into a full-blown flu or I might have some kind of walking pneumonia.

By the end of that week, I developed a new pain right underneath my clavicle. It would work itself toward my shoulder, and I knew I needed to see a doctor. I felt like I was having a heart attack. I went to the emergency-care clinic in my neighborhood so they could listen to my lungs, and the doctor said he didn’t hear anything concerning but wanted to do an X-ray just for peace of mind. He did the X-ray, and when he came back, he told me he saw something in my lungs. He said it could be an inflamed lymph node but that it was pretty big.

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That doctor sent me to a different center to get a CT scan with contrast so we could figure out what was going on. As soon as I got home from the scan, the technician from the center called and asked me to come into the ER right away. Apparently they were able to see the mass but couldn’t see its exact location or what it was wrapped around. To them, it looked like it might be wrapped around my heart, so they were afraid I could have a heart attack at any moment.

They told me all of this over the phone. In seconds, I went from needing to do laundry and homework to thinking I was going to have a heart attack. It completely shattered my world. I was already worried about having something going on in my lungs, and now it was much more than an inflamed lymph node.

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I rushed to the ER near my house and had a CT scan without contrast. Eight hours later, the doctors calmed my nerves: They said the mass was inside my lung, not touching my heart. But it was still a fairly big mass, measuring 5 centimeters in diameter and basically taking over my entire lower lobe of my left lung.

I was referred to a surgeon who would be able to test the mass for cancer and got an appointment with him for the following day. He began running tests, including a bronchoscopy, where my doctor could look at my airway through a tiny camera. As soon as I was coming out of anesthesia, he told me it was cancerous. He tried to tell me to wait and just relax as I came out of the procedure, but I wanted him to tell me right away—I needed to know.

He told me everything would be okay and that we would take care of it. I liked that he was so straightforward with me and my family. He told me he had treated patients who were worse, who had bigger masses, and who were further along, and that everything was okay in those situations—so I should just let him get to work. He wanted to remove the mass as soon as possible so it wouldn’t progress further or get wrapped around an artery. He officially diagnosed me with cancer on April 4—I had an atypical carcinoid tumor—and had me on the operating room table on April 24.

The good news was that, as far as cancers go, mine was “kind of good” in that it wouldn't spread as fast. But, of course, with cancer there are a lot of unknowns, like what caused it. The doctor estimated that I’d had it in my body for four or five years—or more. My body had been fighting it for a long time. All that coughing, those signs of sickness—that was because the lower lobe of my lung was filled with fluid, and my body was trying to fight it. The doctor told me I was barely using my left lung and that he didn’t know how I was doing everything I was doing.

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In order to fully remove the cancer, the doctor made a five-inch incision and broke one of my ribs, but it was successful. I didn’t have to undergo an extra treatment like chemotherapy. I was on antibiotics after the surgery, but that was it—so I consider myself very lucky.

I came home after a week in the hospital, and the recovery went great. I was walking around the third day after surgery, too. But it wasn't just a physical thing. I had a big mental battle to fight, too. I was afraid to do stuff for a long time. But a month after surgery, my husband and I decided to go on a cruise. We had been so stressed throughout this ordeal, and we said, “We deserve this!” We didn’t go crazy on the trip—we said we’d just go to the spa and sleep all day if we needed to. But we went and had a great time, and I even did an obstacle course on the cruise without any pain.

Now, I’m doing fairly well. On rainy days, I have some lingering pain from that broken rib, but it’s not a debilitating pain. Before the surgery, I was only using 50 percent of my lung’s capacity. Now, I’m at 75 percent—and that’s after having almost half a lung removed! So that’s pretty good. I don’t have to use any oxygen, and I can walk fast, run, or do whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s great.

It wasn’t until after my surgery that I learned that lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I'm glad I didn’t know that before surgery or I would’ve been much more freaked out. But it’s important for people to know that so they can monitor their bodies and get checked.

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I tell women that if they have the slightest doubts, go get screened for lung cancer. I never smoked, I was young, and I was leading a fairly healthy life, and it still happened to me. That’s why I’ve joined efforts to raise awareness with LUNG FORCE. I want people to know that they should listen to their bodies—really listen—and always see a doctor if something doesn’t feel right.

This article originally appeared in Women’s Health