In May of 2000 I graduated from Duke University. I was 54 years old. Like all the other (younger) graduating seniors that day I threw my cap up to the sky. It had been a lot of hard work to wear that cap and gown since I had never attended college at all prior to that time. In 1994, after taking four courses and maintaining a B+ average, I matriculated into Duke. I was a Duke employee at the time too, so I would take my classes on my lunch hour, after work, before work, and during summer sessions. Often during those times I would think, “I can’t believe I’m actually going to Duke University when I barely made it through high school.” But it turned out to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
After graduating, I decided to take some time off. I went on a horseback riding retreat in the mountains that summer. That was when I first began to notice some weakness whenever I tried to mount my horse or dismount. In late October my best friend and I went on a tour of Italy to explore the beautiful art work I had studied in my Art History classes. Again though, I experienced periods of weakness throughout the trip, especially when walking.
After arriving home in early November of 2000 I had to arrange a wedding for my son. All went well but afterward, I felt completely exhausted and my left shoulder had begun to hurt. I had my blood pressure taken and it was very high. By January of 2001 I had developed a bad cough. I took several rounds of antibiotics but nothing helped and I was getting weaker and weaker.
The next time I went to my primary care physician he advised a chest X-ray. The next day I got the call. I was to go to the hospital at once for a CT scan. Diagnosis: Small cell lung cancer, Stage 1. By that time, I was so sick I really didn’t care if I lived or died. After a week in the hospital where I was monitored by Dr. Jennifer Garst, I was able to return home. Dr. Garst set me up for chemotherapy. After that came a round of brain radiation because if SCLC ever returns, the first place it would attack would be not my lungs, but my brain. It took several months but gradually I began to feel more like my old pre-cancer self: stronger and able to resume some routine normal activities.
That was 11 years ago. I still go for yearly checkups and testing but that is a small price to pay for knowing that I am cancer-free. I still love learning and attend Duke’s Ollie classes for learning in retirement and try to maintain an active lifestyle. I take Tai-Chi classes and walk when I can. Now I’m thinking about getting a bycicle.
I have Dr. Jennifer Garst to thank for her expertise in treating my SCLC. Today, Dr. Garst is an active participant in the Lung Cancer Initiative, and their 5K race in Raleigh. I also am very thankful for my family and friends who supported me with their help and prayers. I feel extremely lucky to be alive.
I’ll see you in November for the next race, Dr. Garst!