What keeps you up at night? For me it’s wondering if I’m fulfilling my purpose, wondering if I’m doing what God created me to do. Before 2008, I never thought I’d be a healthcare/lung cancer advocate. I was traveling and working for the Southeastern Conference (yes, THE SEC) and was living a pretty good life. Sporting events and all sorts of fun activities dominated my professional and personal life. I had just purchased my first house and life was pretty good. And then. Mom was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in September 2008. Oh. Ok, well, I’ll just keep doing my job and, you know, keep it normal. But my ‘new normal’ was watching mom, a retired educator and guidance counselor, figure out how to navigate this diagnosis of pure hell. What the what? Mom and dad live in Louisiana, I live in Birmingham. So just how do I do this?
Fast-forward through two years of chemo treatments, trips to MD Anderson and lots of tears. We didn’t even think she would still be with us, but yet she was. So did that mean there was hope? She and dad were traveling to my events and scheduling activities around her chemo treatments. She had a part-time job that kept her busy and she liked it that way. It kept her mind off her health. And then it happened. Spring 2011. Mom and dad were with me in Birmingham after we spent a week working at the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Nashville. What we thought was a ‘minor stroke’ turned out to be the first sign that mom’s health was declining. She had 95% blockage in one of her arteries and her brain scans showed two small legions the size of a grain of rice. I learned then what “brain mets” meant. Basically, the cancer had metastasized to her brain. For several months after that mom was on steroids to keep the swelling down in her brain and she got weaker and she lost a lot of weight. But she was determined not to go down without a fight.
Back then they were just starting to talk about targeted treatments for specific genetic mutations. But we didn’t know if mom was a candidate. And quite honestly, it was too late for any clinical trial participation, but we tried anyway. At this point I had left the SEC and started a new job, but with so much going on with mom, I resigned from that job after just four months. My life then became that of a full-time advocate, working to ensure that mom’s quality of life wasn’t affected. But how could it not be? It was then I began to see that I couldn’t go back to what my life used to be. I knew that I wanted to do something that helped others figure out how to navigate the confusing haze of paperwork, doctor’s appointments, medical bills and meds. I spoke up when I realized that mom was over-medicated and that her quality of life was poor because she was taking too much of everything. We paired down her meds list (I didn’t ask her doctor, I told him what we were going to do) and we tried to simplify her life. She had a few brief months of clarity. Though the brain mets spread, she still had her sense of humor and she still loved visiting with her former students. Though she could no longer write a check, she still wanted to go for rides, watch movies and eat pickles and popcorn at 2 a.m. And I was there for every moment. I was there when she picked out clothes for the upcoming Mother’s Day service at church. I was also there when, later that night after a day of shopping, she was riddled with pain. Pain so bad that she couldn’t speak, she only moaned. She never made it to that Mother’s Day service.
I think went through all of that because God wanted me to go a different direction in my life. It took a while for me to get back on track after mom died and at 46 years old and I am still trying to get my professional and personal life back on track. I am working, but I wonder every day if I am doing what God created me to do. So while I figure that out, I decided to share what I’ve learned about lung cancer. I am a lung cancer advocate and for now it’s one of many things that God created me to do. By the way, mom never had any symptoms of lung cancer. No cough, no chest pains, nothing. Want to know how she found out she had lung cancer? A sore neck and swollen lymph nodes and a biopsy that confirmed it. At that point, the cancer had already spread to her liver and her spine. My mom’s story is why we need more funding for research and why we need better screening methods. And it’s also what keeps me up late at night. We have so much work to do.