Walking Away from a Burning Car

BY Karla Castro-Frenzel
PUBLISHED July 23, 2019
I wasn't supposed to get lung cancer.

Not as a physician, not as mother, not as a vegan... in no universe did it compute that I would come down with a terminal illness at the age of 45. I was running 3 miles a day about two to three times a week, asymptomatic, and the only risk factor I could identify was stress. As an anesthesiologist in a children's hospital, I had been taxed with extra calls due to colleagues falling ill. At the same time, my children were entering the age where they needed me more. The demands of motherhood and work were mounting toward a breaking point, as I tried to negotiate a decreased call schedule with our administration. Only in retrospect could I see that my negotiation attempts were my body's desperate screams that something had gone wildly wrong inside.

One call night my hand happened to graze my collar bone, and when I looked in the mirror I saw that I indeed had a swollen supraclavicular node, a telltale sign of some malignancy brewing. My suspicions were confirmed via CT scan within a week: stage IV lung cancer.

Later, an excision node biopsy revealed something called an ALK+ mutation. My oncologist, whom up to this point had sported a most somber affect, all the sudden sounded giddy and congratulated me on the finding. The mutation was a jewel in the vast, forboding jungle I suddenly found myself in, one jewel out of many. This mutation meant that I could take a targeted agent, a pill, to arrest the cancer, making radiation and chemo nearly obsolete.

Six weeks later, CT scans revealed a reduction in tumor volume of 50%; by 12 weeks, a complete response with an almost completely quiet PET scan. By this point, I had been to Moffit Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Mass General, in addition to my home base oncologist at Orange Regional Medical Center. I had been feeling really well, so it was such great confirmation that my scans matched my improved cardiovascular fitness.

I had turned my life around in small but significant ways: no sugar, no alcohol, prayer, meditation, more sleep, increased hydration, much reduced work hours, including suspension of call, and daily vigorous exercise. My return to work was one of the most healing things I have ever experienced. Within one month I witnessed my colleagues openly weeping for me, to joyously welcoming my return. it was like watching spring unfold before your eyes, a rebirth.

For once, the healing environment that I work in worked on me. All those hugs, words of encouragement and support, and seeing, for the first time, what I meant to others was nothing short of a miracle, yet another jewel. Now that this tumor has been subdued, with God's grace, for good, I feel each day as if I've just walked away from a burning car: I have felt the heat, and perhaps some of my arm hairs have singed, but my flesh is intact, and I can and do walk forward with God's grace, in His miraculous love; a living, breathing prayer in motion.
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