n October of 2006, Tomma Hargraves found a small lump in her neck. Although she felt very healthy, she went to her doctor to have the lump checked out. A few days later, she received a diagnosis that shocked her: Stage 3B non-small cell lung cancer. The tumor was in the right lobe of her lungs, and the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes on the left side of her neck.
“I wish I had known that non-smokers and people who had quit long ago could get lung cancer,” says Hargraves. I thought I had done everything right, and I still got lung cancer.”
After seeking several opinions and researching her treatment options, Hargraves decided on UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Two things set UNC Lineberger apart for her. “I was offered an aggressive clinical trial that included chemo, radiation and a targeted oral medication,” she says. “But what I really loved about UNC was the team approach. I didn’t have to go from doctor to doctor. They all came to me in my room and talked to me about their roles: the radiation oncologist; the thoracic oncologist; the nurse navigator. The N.C. Cancer Hospital has such a warm atmosphere, and I feel like the people really care about me.”
The treatment lasted nine months, and it got her into remission – or as she prefers to say, it got the cancer “under control.” Although the cancer reappeared a few years later in her lymph nodes and brain, it is once again under control. Now eight years after her initial diagnosis, Hargraves is a survivor giving back to the hospital that she credits with saving her life.
Recently retired from a 42 year career as a speech-language pathologist, Hargraves is now training to become a lay navigator for lung cancer patients at the N.C. Cancer Hospital. This new program trains volunteers to offer practical and emotional support to patients and families journeying through cancer treatment. “I am so eager to get started as a lay navigator,” she says. “It’s a good avenue to work on the personal side. I can’t do anything medically – we have our experts for that – but I can help with support services.”
Hargraves is also an active lung cancer advocate. She serves on the board of directors of the Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina (LCINC) working to increase awareness and research for lung cancer. “Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer,” she explains. “It kills more women than breast cancer. Breast cancer has done a wonderful job with advocacy, and we want that with lung cancer. It’s not just a smoker’s disease, but we carry that stigma.”
She met UNC Lineberger’s Jared Weiss, MD, at a lung cancer advocacy summit. “We were friends and advocates together before he came to UNC Lineberger in 2010. When I came out of remission, he became my physician,” she explains. “He is very knowledgeable, and he really works hard to make a difference for lung cancer patients.”
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and LCINC is holding 5K events in Raleigh and Greensboro. Hargraves says the money they raise in North Carolina stays in North Carolina, and hopefully that money will support lung cancer research at UNC Lineberger.
Hargraves understands that some cancer survivors want to get as far away from cancer as they can after finishing treatment, but she found she could not walk away. “It’s part of who I am now,” she says. “I’m still a patient, but I’m also an advocate trying to make things better for other lung cancer patients.”