Awareness • Early Detection • Treatment • Research • Survivorship

Tammy Miller is Changing the Face of Lung Cancer

In February 2008, I noticed I was coughing more frequently than usual. But I wasn’t worried. I had suffered from seasonal allergies most of my adult life and the cough did not seem any different from my past experiences. At age 42, I was a nonsmoker, I regularly exercised and loved being outdoors. A couple of months passed and I went about my daily life with the cough continuing of and on.

In April of 2008, my husband and I took a trip to Jamaica where we had a wonderful time. Although I was feeling tired and needed to take lots of naps, I thought my fatigue was due to my aortic stenosis (narrowing of the heart’s aortic valve), a condition I had lived with for several years. However, prior to my trip the cardiologist told me that my heart was okay and that I would not need any surgery in the near future. After returning home, I decided to get to the bottom of my cough. My primary care physician ordered a chest X-ray which showed what appeared to be pneumonia in both my lungs. I was puzzled by this diagnosis because I had always believed that symptoms of pneumonia included fever and coughing up sputum. I told myself, though, “Well, I am not the doctor and my physician has much more experience with this sort of thing.” So I followed the doctor’s orders, completed a round of antibiotics and went back to my everyday life. But the cough continued.

During the last two weeks of June 2008, while I was on a hiking and camping trip to the Grand Canyon, I noticed a rattling/crackling sound coming from my chest while I was sleeping. Since I was feeling short of breath as well, I wondered if I was suffering from asthma. After I returned home from the trip, I went back to see my physician. Again, he told me that I had pneumonia, but I was not convinced. I insisted that he examine me more closely and listen specifically for the sounds coming from my lungs while I was lying on my back. After he did, he said, “I have never heard anything quite like this.” He then ordered that I undergo a lung function test and a CT scan.

While driving home after the tests, I received a phone call from my doctor. “Go back to the Emergency Room immediately,” he said. “You either have lung cancer or Tuberculosis and you must be quarantined if it is the latter.” I was in shock. But cancer was not my main worry-I just knew I did not have cancer. I believed that I had Tuberculosis. For months I had been coughing and I was so scared and worried that during all that time, I had been infecting my friends, family and coworkers.

After more tests, a few days later my doctor informed me that I did not have Tuberculosis. I was so relieved to know that I had not infected other people that the realization that I had lung cancer did not automatically sink in. I heard the doctor say cancer, but at the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. After a biopsy of m lymph nodes, I was diagnosed with stage IV adenocarcinoma. Both of my lungs had multiple tumors, the cancer was in my lymph nodes in my chest and I had one brain tumor. At the time I remember thinking, “Well, this is just a large bump in the road.” I knew my life was going to be inconvenienced, and it was not going to be a picnic to take chemotherapy, lose my hair, be sick and experience side effects. But not once did it ever occur to me that the cancer was so serious that I would die from it. I just wanted to begin my treatments so I could finally get better.

In September of 2008, I began chemotherapy treatment with the drugs Carboplatin and Taxotere. While receiving this treatment I suffered a Pulmonary Embolism (blood clots to the lungs) and battled several bouts of pneumonia, for which I was hospitalized for extended periods. At that time I also received stereo tactic radiation treatment to my brain tumor.

In December of 2008, I began chemotherapy treatment using the drugs Avastin and Alimta and had positive results. However, in January of 2009, I began experiencing severe and debilitating headaches. At the time doctors were unsure if my brain tumor had began growing again or if there was fluid build up as a result of the radiation. Brain surgery was needed immediately. During the surgery, doctors were able to determine the problem to be fluid buildup which was due to scar tissue from the radiation procedure, and the fluid was drained.

My chemotherapy continued with the switch to a targeted therapy drug, Tarceva (Erlotinib), which also gave positive results. Though still suffering from some side effects, the reduced side effects allowed me to begin living a more active lifestyle. In March of 2010, my husband and I visited family on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. While there we hiked numerous trails, including eight miles along the beautiful Napali Coast and I jumped off of a beautiful twenty five foot waterfall. In November of 2010 I also ran the Lung Cancer Connection 5K Race in a time of 44 minutes.

Over a period of time, the benefits of the Tarceva became minimal. At the advice of a friend, I had genetic mutation testing conducted and results determined that I have an ALK mutation. With this mutation, I was given the opportunity to participate in a trial study for a targeted therapy using the oral drug Xalkori (Crizotinib). With even more reduced side effects, I am able to be more active and do things that I enjoy.

After taking the Xalkori for quite some time, tests determined that my treatments needed a boost. Therefore, I was placed into phase one of a new trial study that combines the use of Xalkori with an infused drug (yet to be named). So far I am having positive results and continue to do most things I enjoy: walks with my dog; bicycle rides with my husband; playing with my nieces; attending sporting events; and flower gardening.

I am currently a five year, stage IV lung cancer survivor. In November of this year, 2013, I will be participating in the Lung Cancer Connection 5k walk/run where I will walk with my team members, who will walk or run to raise awareness and funds for continued lung cancer research.