After telling me I had cancer, the doctor asked me a question that didn’t make sense at that moment. He asked if my dad ever worked in a mine or at a construction site. As a matter of fact, he had done both. The doctor took a deep breath and dropped another bomb: I had a cancer called mesothelioma, and it was caused by asbestos exposure.
All I could think of was my little baby at home. I made up my mind, right there and then, that I would do whatever it took so I could be here to raise my baby. This is my story of how my mesothelioma diagnosis led to surgery, and eventually, to recovery.
My Diagnosis and Treatment Options
“You have cancer.”
The words hung in the air while both my husband Cam and I let them sink in.
I had a tumor growing in the lining of my left lung, and without treatment, I only had about 15 months to live. I looked over at Cam, tears welling in my eyes, and all he could say was, “This is bad.”
I asked the doctor what my options were besides dying. He said I could do chemo and radiation, which would hopefully extend my life expectancy by maybe five years if I responded well. I just kept picturing my baby growing up without me. Five years was not acceptable. So I just asked what other options there were.
Could Mesothelioma Surgery Save My Life?
He then told us about a surgery being done on pleural mesothelioma patients to help some of them live longer, called extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP). Basically, a fancy name for having my lung removed.
I just stared at him, trying to process everything. Cam reached over and grabbed my hand, giving me much-needed support. The doctor went on to explain that this surgery isn’t done by many places, so he offered three options. The University of Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic Hospital or Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The hospital in Boston had a mesothelioma expert who did this surgery multiple times a week.
Without batting an eye, Cam said, “Get us to Boston.”
Twelve days later, Cam and I were on a plane to Boston to meet with Dr. David Sugarbaker, the man we hoped would save my life.
First Visit With My Surgeon, Dr. Sugarbaker
It was early December. Instead of decorating and planning for the holiday season and our baby’s first Christmas, we were in a city we’d never been to before, caught up in a surreal series of events that I could never have prepared myself for. While we searched for answers in Boston, my parents came and stayed to care for our now four-month-old. Knowing that our baby was cared for made going to Boston a little easier.
We were scheduled to attend a new patient orientation at the International Mesothelioma Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. We got to the hospital and were shown to the meeting room where the orientation was to take place. There were two other patients in the room with us, and the reality of my situation started to set in.
The other two patients were much older men, in their 70s or 80s, surrounded by their loved ones, and there was Cam and me. I was just 36, and a first-time mom. I didn’t belong here. My mind was spinning and I couldn’t breathe. I started to have a panic attack in that room while they were explaining what mesothelioma was. I began crying and had to leave the room.
One of the social workers with the program saw me leave the room and quietly followed me out to check on me. Charlene was her name, and from that moment, we had a special bond that would be such an asset in the months and years to come. She just held my hand and talked me back from the edge. She accompanied me back into the room right before Dr. Sugarbaker started to speak.
My Mesothelioma Biopsy Procedure
I was admitted to the hospital the next morning to prepare for the biopsy that afternoon. It went off without a hitch, but I ended up staying two days in the hospital due to spiking a fever the morning after.
I don’t remember much about those two days other than meeting a nurse, who was also named Heather. She was my nurse for both of the nights I was there and we became fast friends. I was discharged after the second night and was told I could fly back home in a couple of days and wait for a phone call for the next steps.
The call came a few days before Christmas, and I was told I was a perfect candidate for surgery. The surgery date was set for February 2nd at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I started putting plans together for the lengthy stay there. Together, Cam and I decided that our little baby would stay with my parents while we were in Boston.
Before we knew it, the day came for us to leave. My mom had flown out a few days prior to help us get the baby ready. They would fly back together while we flew the opposite way.
That was the hardest day of my life, saying goodbye to my sweet baby, not knowing if I would live to see my family again. Many tears were shed as we walked our separate ways in the airport and onto the biggest battle I’d ever faced in my entire life.