Debi Walsh's Story

Debi Walsh was diagnosed with lung cancer

“Lung cancer, in my mind, was always a disease someone else got, someone older, someone that I didn’t quite know. The only symptoms that I had were a dry cough that my doctor diagnosed as allergies, a soreness in my right shoulder blade and fatigue - the kind of fatigue you have when you are pregnant, the kind that just drains half the life out of you.

I went for a second opinion, and had a chest x-ray taken in January of 2003. That was the beginning. Four months, 2 chest CTs and a PET scan later, I was sitting in the smoking lounge at the Cancer Treatment Center, stressing over my impending surgery the following morning. Yes, I still smoked. If it had been easy to quit, I would have quit years before… the most stressful time of my life, hell yes, I still smoked.

I had my five-hour surgery on June 16 th, 2003. I was 46 years old. Instead of taking out just my right upper lobe, they took out my middle lobe also. When I asked my surgeon what happened, he sort of waved his hand in a universal, ahhhh, don’t worry about it gesture, and told me that I didn’t need it anyway (which I’m sure people with two whole lungs find easy to say). I read later in the surgical report that there had been a problem with the middle lobe getting air, so they took it. They tested 17 lymph nodes and the tissues of my two lobes but the only thing that tested positive for cancer was the 1.3 centimeter nodule itself. I was staged 1A, Non Small Cell Lung Cancer.

I was able to quit smoking, the one thing that I was never ever able to do in my life before. The combination of my drug induced sleep and my inability to be nervy enough to ask anyone to roll my bed and attached hoses, chest tubes, IVs, pain pumps, catheters, etc, down 40 stories to the smoking lounge so I could light up a Marlboro Lite, was the magic fix. I had my last cigarette on Sunday, my operation on Monday and on Thursday, I felt like a new woman. The epidural was out, the catheter was out, the chest tubes were out and I had showered (never underestimate the healing powers of a hot shower!). I also think that the nicotine that had coursed through my veins the last 30 years was “out”. I left the hospital on Saturday. My surgeon and doctors pronounced me “cured” and said I had an 80% survival rate. They told me I was “lucky”.

The first three months of recovery, I couldn’t sleep. When I did it was fitfully, I would wake up all night long, for no reason other than to remember I had cancer. The physical pain was bearable but constant; my side and under my breastbone were numb. When they perform lung surgery, they cut through your back and sever all the nerves that run around your side and into the trunk of your body in the front. It takes a long time for sensation to return, which is probably a good thing. I am 21 months out of surgery and still am numb in areas and sore if I push on my ribs. I only started wearing a bra again three months ago because I couldn’t bear to have anything push on me. It took me almost a year to be able to sleep on my right side again. Other than that, physically I feel okay and my breathing is normal.

Emotionally and mentally, my life has changed. It now feels temporary. My little boy’s birthday is next month. When I was operated on, he was four years old, next month he will be six. Every birthday that he has is an accomplishment for me, one more year of having “made” it. Another year of maybe him having a chance of remembering me if it comes back and I have to leave him. I have an older daughter and four grandchildren, and constantly have to stop myself from wanting to cut myself off from them now in my desire to spare them grief in the future. I am afraid to make any life decisions. I’m no longer as impulsive as I was, I didn’t get a haircut for the first year because I wanted to hoard my hair in case the cancer came back and I had to get chemo. I complain about my job but can no longer just leave it. I am a prisoner of my medical insurance. Every three months I get tests, and waiting for the results is hell. Then I feel good for about two months, before it’s time to start stressing again, and then getting more tests. Any ache and pain I get needs to be investigated. Recently, I complained to a doctor that I feel like a hypochondriac and he told me that with my history, I need to be one. Thoughts of cancer are never far away from me.

I feel guilty that I am not working at lung cancer advocacy more. I am one of the “lucky” ones, I should be out there, letting people know about early detection, that people can survive lung cancer, especially if it’s found early! Awareness needs to be spread, we need to get the word out that lung cancer kills twice as many women as breast cancer, that lung cancer is so under funded. We need to stop smoking, and at the same time we need to let people know that you don’t have to smoke or still be smoking to get lung cancer. I should be out there, but I’m not. I have my job and I have my son, and I have my fears. Maybe one day…

I have not smoked since June 15 th, 2003. I’m not one of those militant ex-smokers, I see no sense in lecturing smokers, because I know how hard it is to stop. Hell, some days, it is all I can do to not want a cigarette still. But the longer I am out from surgery, the angrier I get toward tobacco companies and the lies they have told. I am angry at the governments that support them, allowing them to continue selling their product, my same government who will sanction the police writing me a ticket because I’m not wearing my seat belt and may hurt myself.

I read somewhere that one in ten smokers get lung cancer. It annoys me sometimes, when I see people who smoke two or three packs a day and have a perpetual cough, and they are okay. In some snobbish hierarchy of smokers, I wonder why myself, a mere one pack of lite cigarettes a day smoker, ended up with lung cancer. I understand how people who have never smoked and have lung cancer must feel. But the bottom line is regardless of whether one smokes three packs or one, or even smokes at all, shouldn’t matter. We are all suffering from the same disease, no matter how we came about having it.

If someone is new to lung cancer, I suggest they become as informed as they possibly can. I have realized that I am ultimately responsible for my own body and if that means researching and demanding that certain tests be done by my doctor, so be it. If that means arguing all day with my insurance company on the phone to get the provider approved that I need, fine. I found a lung cancer support network online that I go to for advice and support. My family and friends try to be supportive but never quite understand, as they shouldn’t, since they have not had to be here where I stand.

All things considered, I am okay. Every day I heal a little bit more and sometimes, I can actually go a day or two without thinking about cancer. I suppose my world is slowly righting itself. On days such as today, when the air is fresh and clean with the newness of spring, I even feel the stirrings of hope and all things seem possible again. To be able to feel these moments are worth living through the fears I still have...I really am so grateful to be here…and yes, some days I even feel lucky!”

March 2005

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