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After a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer, Bekah Cunningham went to have a fertility preservation procedure, which ended up discovering another cancer in her lungs.
Bekah Cunningham had been coughing up blood for months and developed pneumonia and bronchitis several times throughout 2015, but her specialist couldn’t seem to figure out what was going on. She was told it might be adult-onset asthma causing her trouble. That doctor couldn’t have been more wrong.
A lump in her breast led the 30-year-old to get a mammogram where the first diagnosis came down. Cunningham had triple-negative breast cancer.
“I was in shock and afraid,” Cunningham recalled of the moment she was diagnosed in an interview with CURE. “But the doctors felt confident that there was a really good strategy to beat it. I was scared, but I had hope.”
The strategy was going to be chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy close to Cunningham’s home in Mobile, Alabama. Since the chemotherapy would likely damage her eggs, she decided to undergo fertility preservation beforehand. This process would require her to be under anesthesia, though, and she was not healthy enough to be put under right away. Her lungs were full of fluid that had to be drained. When her doctor biopsied that fluid he found cancer there, too. Cunningham was re-diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
“The doctor said, ‘I don’t know how much time you have. You probably don’t have much,’” explained Cunningham. “My body was in fight or flight mode. I only heard positive things. I don’t know if that was my mind protecting me or what.”
She began working with an oncology dietician and natural path doctor to change her lifestyle. “I became pretty intense about my diet and doing everything that I could. I didn’t want to die. I don’t want to die,” she said.
Knowing she needed to move quickly, Cunningham got help from the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, an organization that she connected with thanks to a friend, to get into Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston for treatment. Cunningham was diagnosed on a Thursday, and by Tuesday she was meeting with doctors at Dana-Farber.
She also enrolled in the Genomics of Young Lung Study at the institute, where she underwent genomic testing. Those results showed that Cunningham was ALK-positive, a gene mutation, and PD-L1 positive, a biomarker for cancers. This qualified her for targeted therapy, a treatment in which cancer drugs attack certain genes or proteins to inhibit cancer growth.
The first diagnosis and re-diagnosis all unfolded in a matter of weeks. In that whirlwind, cancer became Cunningham’s full-time job, as well as her sister Betsy’s, who uprooted her life in Texas to be with Cunningham throughout her battle. The sisters would go to a doctor’s appointment in the morning, then come home and research for hours.
“There’s no way I could have done it without her,” said Cunningham. “My mind was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even think some days. It was those days she took over for me.”
New scans showed cancer in her sternum, lymph nodes, breast, pelvis and liver. But, it appeared that the targeted therapy — Cunningham was put on Xalkori (crizotinib) — was working, as her tumors began to shrink rapidly.
In August 2016, Cunningham hit yet another hurdle. A full body scan revealed that the cancer spread to her brain. She switched to Alecensa (alectinib), a targeted drug that she remains on to this day. It comes in the form of a pill that she takes twice daily.
Cunningham remains stable and has moved on to the “new normal” of her life. Her latest scans show a small amount of cancer in her liver, breast and brain.
She is now working to spread awareness through her blog and by being active with local hospitals.
“I was sick with lung problems that I never had in my entire life, and no one even thought to think that it could be anything other than allergies or a bad immune system,” Cunningham said. “Awareness is really important to me.”
Cunningham, who worked as a hair stylist for 10 years, is also left wondering if her profession contributed to how she developed cancer in the first place. “Was it these chemicals that I was breathing in? What I put on my skin? Was it something I ate?”
In response, she lives a healthier lifestyle and has even begun testing natural, organic hair products on family and friends to get back to doing what she loves — styling hair.
Her advice to patients and survivors is to be your own advocate. “Listen to your body and intuition,” said Cunningham. “Ask a lot of questions. If your doctor isn’t willing to listen, find a new doctor.”