What does it mean to be grateful when you have metastatic lung cancer?
Four years ago on Thanksgiving, my extended family gathered for a somewhat somber meal. I had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer the previous May, and despite aggressive treatment, the cancer had spread further. Although the tumors in my left lung and between my lungs were shrinking due to chemo and radiation, the new mass at the base of my neck was starting to threaten my carotid artery. I could see it growing week by week. I felt flashes of hope mingled with panic, anger and regret. Lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer for both men and women and the survival rate for metastatic disease is less than 5 percent. My presence at future family gatherings was far from assured.
This year, I am immensely grateful to have seen three more Thanksgivings and to have no evidence of disease for three years and counting.
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I'm grateful for the support I've received from so many throughout my cancer journey. I'm grateful for compassionate and educated health care providers and researchers who do their best for cancer patients, especially metastatic patients. I'm grateful for the scientific discoveries and clinical trials that have made precision medicine and immunotherapies available to increasing numbers of cancer patients. I'm grateful for health insurance that made treatment financially possible. I'm grateful for the amazing online communities of lung cancer patients and caregivers who help me cope with side effects and learn about my options. I’m grateful that more new treatments have been approved for lung cancer in the past four years than in the previous four decades. Without all this, I would be dead now.
Being grateful does not mean I believe everything in Cancerland is rosy and perfect. I am acutely aware that the majority of lung cancer patients are not as fortunate as I am. The U.S. health care system makes accessing care and new treatments difficult for too many. I know metastatic lung cancer patients who were sent home on hospice without a chance for their tumors to undergo genomic tests necessary for targeted drugs like mine. Despite lung cancer killing more people per year than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined, lung cancer research receives less funding per death than any of them. I have permanent side effects from past and current treatments, like a blood clot in the artery leading to my lungs and persistent low grade nerve pain. And I am not cured — I still undergo scans every eight weeks in my clinical trial to determine if my lung cancer is growing. I will be on chemo or in clinical trials for the rest of my life, which will likely be shorter than I expected BC (before cancer).
But still, I feel grateful. Right here, right now, I am alive and I have a good quality of life. Gratitude helps me live well, in this moment. It has become my way of being. Living well despite uncertainty is incredibly empowering.
I am grateful for every second of time I have on this earth. Time to be with family and friends, hug, walk, see the weather change, smell a forest, listen to music, taste dark chocolate, learn something new, share ideas, dream and laugh. Although my abilities and level of comfort ebb and flow with my cancer and treatment, I can usually appreciate each moment in some fashion. I don't want to waste any moments on anger, bitterness or “why?” If I do, cancer wins.
I triumph over cancer by staying true to myself, whatever comes, and by living gratefully.
May you know genuine gratitude in the moments you have.