Awareness • Early Detection • Treatment • Research • Survivorship

Tammy Alexander is Changing the Face of Lung Cancer

In looking back I can see the signs, now that I know them, I can see them. But hindsight is 20/20, or so they say. Would my diagnosis be different had it been detected a few months earlier? A few years earlier? One will never know. I have always suffered from allergies, mostly seasonal, so having a constant cough, stuffy nose, and chronic cough was never unusual. I had often joked that I had a cold from September thru April. But this school year, things were a bit different. I had turned 45, was a bit overweight, constantly tired, and wanted to make a change.

So I changed my diet, began using Advocate products, began running and lost 40 pounds. But no matter what, I couldn’t shake this cough and chest congestion. I had visited the immediate care and my primary doctor for various upper respiratory ailments. I was diagnosed with bronchitis, sinus infections, post-nasal drip which caused by chronic cough, and, finally, asthma. I was referred to a pulmonologist, who confirmed the asthma diagnosis with a pulmonary function test. I was prescribed a maintenance inhaler and an emergency inhaler.

During this time I was also running various local and virtual 5K runs, in preparation for “The Biggest Loser 5K” in June and signed up for the Disney Princess 1/2 marathon in February 2014. I ran the Biggest Loser 5k on June 8, 2014. I was apprehensive, as I had just received the “official” diagnosis of asthma. I ran with my inhaler, just in case. I ran a VERY conservative race, walking most of the course.
Fast forward to Tuesday, June 11th. At approximately 3 am I was startled awake. I had felt like i was gasping for breath. I couldn’t tell if I had been dreaming that I stopped breathing or if it actually happened. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep for the rest of the morning. Later in the afternoon, I was still gasping for breath, comparing it to breathing through a wet washcloth. I was using my emergency inhaler almost every 2 hours. Since I was just given new medication for the asthma, I was hesitant to see or call the doctor. “Just gives the medicine time” was what I had thought.

At approximately 7:30 pm I had decided that I had endured enough. It was time to go to the walk-in clinic to have a breathing treatment. Unfortunately the walk-in was closed by the time we got there. Now I had a decision to make. Go home or go to the hospital. We were one block away from the turn off to our home and I decided “Let’s just go and get it checked out”. I will get a breathing treatment and be sent home.
When I entered into the E.R., thankfully they weren’t busy, I, between gasps for air, told them I was having an asthma attack. While being triage, the nurse noted that I wasn’t wheezing. I agreed and mentioned that i had never wheezed. The admitting nurse and the ER doctor, also noted that I wasn’t wheezing and my lungs sounded clear. Blood tests were ordered. A CT scan was ordered. I received a breathing treatment and was feeling much better. At approximately, 1 am the doctor finally came in and told me that my blood work was fine, however, my CT scan showed a mass in my right lung near my heart. it was 3 cm. At this point, we weren’t sure if it was benign, or a cancerous tumor. My choices were to be admitted and begin the testing or go home and arrange testing myself.

Randy and I didn’t hesitate…my first hospital admission began. During this hospital visit, I was scanned from my eyes to my thighs. I had a bronchoscope biopsy, complete with bronchoalveolar lavage. I now know what it would feel like to almost drown, as I was conscious during that part of the procedure. Blood tests were drawn. At this point, my NEW pulmonologist was almost certain I had a condition called sarcoidosis. This creates nodules in the lungs. Although chronic, it wasn’t typically deadly. I didn’t meet the “profile” for lung cancer. I was much too healthy to have lungs that were “full” of cancerous nodules. I would have presented as a much sicker patient if it were cancer. We had hope. Unfortunately, some samples of cells from the lavage came back suspicious. This would require a visit with a thoracic surgeon. The thoracic surgeon agreed, this looked like sarcoidosis, but until we had a thoracotomy biopsy and he could look at my lungs, cancer was a still a small possibility. Surgery was scheduled for June 28, this day also happened to be Randy’s 47th birthday. No worries though, everything seemed positive.

On June 28, the thoracotomy went well from my perspective. I woke from the anesthesia in a bit of pain, but in good spirits. I couldn’t wait to see my family. I felt great. I remember thinking, I feel good so it can’t be all bad. As I was being wheeled to my room from recovery, we ran into my family and went into the room together. I remember asking Randy if he had talked to the doctor. He walked over, hugged me, and told me he loved me…at that point I knew it was bad. I asked my boys to leave the room and go find the rest of my family and bring them in. This is when Randy told me that it was cancer. And with tears in his eyes, he told me that it was inoperable and incurable stage IV Bronchioloalveolar Carcinoma (BAC). At this point, various members of my extended family had assembled at the hospital. They were all invited in. New rules were established. Rule 1 was NO NEGATIVE ATTITUDES! This is treatable. We would do whatever we needed to do to beat this.

My hospital stay consisted of lots of Dilaudid for pain, wonderful nursing staff and a lot of research, not done by me of course, as I was much too sleepy. What we found was astounding!!! Samples of my tumor were being genetically tested, treatment options wouldn’t be decided until we had those results. Once I had those results I was encouraged to seek out a second and third opinion
. I chose to visit University of Madison Carbone Cancer Center, which works in conjunction with our local cancer center. The physician that I was to see, was also a researcher for BAC. I felt comfortable with her and what her recommendations. I chose to follow her advice, but do it locally. My treatment plan is Tarceva. It is a once a day pill that is targeted to combat the cancer cells. This is much milder than the traditional IV cancer chemotherapy. However, it is not without some side effects. These side effects can include, dry skin, issues with nail beds, gastrointestinal distress, and even hair loss, although not clumpy hair loss, more of a thinning type loss. The worst side effect is a rash on my face, scalp, and upper torso. It looks similar to acne, and is itchy at times. I need to be careful with lotions, as some sting, burn, and aggravate the rash even more.
As of my latest scan, the tumors are shrinking. There appears to be healing in the bone areas. But I am still not out of the woods yet. This medication will only work for so long. My tumor may mutate yet again. If that happens, I will undergo another biopsy, and enter into yet another treatment protocol. In the meantime, I have been running. I have participated in multiple 5K\’s, a 10K, and a 15K in preparation for the Disney Princess Half Marathon in February 2014.