A Portrait of Patricia, New Lung Cancer Patient
You might think that a person who finds out she has inoperable lung cancer-advanced,
aggressive cancer that can't be operated on successfully-would feel extremely
angry, afraid, or depressed. But you probably don't know Patricia, who may be
feeling those emotions, but if she is, she's not letting on.
She'll be 78 this winter, and she found out in the summer that she had advanced
lung cancer. She's been smoking since she was about 16 years old. "I was
having abdominal cramps," she said, "and I had a scan for that. That's
when they noticed 'some little trouble' in my lungs," she says matter-of-factly.
"Then I went to a pulmonologist," she says, "and he said I had
to have more scans done." At this point, Patricia still hadn't told her
three adult children that anything was going on. She says she knew by then that
she had lung cancer, even though nobody had told her she did, and it sounds
as though she had accepted the idea of it fairly well. She didn't see any need
to upset her children, who were about to take summer vacations.
One wonders whether Patricia also felt that as long as she didn't tell people
she might have lung cancer, she'd be able to live her life without a fuss. She
lives by herself and works one day a week in a second-hand antique furniture
store. She's always enjoyed an active social life; even after her husband died,
she continued to go out and socialize with friends. And she's never stopped
enjoying her cigarettes all day and night and a drink or two in the evening.
She felt fine, so why get everybody all upset?
"Then," she says, "they said I needed a bronchoscopy."
This is a biopsy of lung tissue, and it's generally the test that confirms whether
cancer is present. For this test, she would need someone to drive her to the
hospital and drive her home. "That's when I knew I couldn't keep this quiet
anymore," she says. But still, her children were in the midst of their
summer travels, so she asked her friend Janet to take her for the test.
Janet went with her to hear the test results. "The pulmonologist was very
quick," says Patricia. "I sat down and he said, 'You have inoperable
lung cancer and it's aggressive. You have to do something about it right away."
Luckily, Patricia's daughter Mairi Pat, who's now an attorney and who used
to work as a nurse, was just returning from a trip to Ireland. Patricia told
Mairi Pat the news. Together, they went to see an oncologist, and then to another
oncologist for a second opinion.
By this time, Patricia had told her two other children as well, and her sister
and nieces. Everybody gathered at dinner one night at Patricia's sister's house
to talk about things with Patricia. The oncologists had told Patricia that chemotherapy
was her best treatment option. They said that someone with the type of cancer
she had who underwent chemotherapy would have an average of two years to live.
Without treatment, they said she probably would have about six months.
Patricia didn't like the idea of chemotherapy. She had watched one of her sisters
die of ovarian cancer, and that sister had been sick from her treatments. But
the doctors had told Patricia that there was now medication to control nausea
after chemotherapy. They said she probably wouldn't feel terribly sick from
her treatments, just tired.
While she didn't like the idea of chemotherapy, Patricia also didn't like the
idea of living for only six more months. "That's too quick," she says.
"I don't think I could get everything done in time. But two years, that
doesn't seem so bad. I mean, I'm 78. Something's going to get me at some point.
Besides," she said, "the kids are saying they want me around as long
So Patricia has begun treatment. Mairi Pat has gone to almost all of the appointments
with her, serving as another set of ears, writing things down, keeping track
of things in writing. She and her sister help their mother remember to take
her pills, to take her temperature twice a day, to take care of herself in general.
"I have two daughters who check in like the police," Patricia says.
She points out that having Mairi Pat go with her to all her doctors' appointments
has been invaluable. "She's helped me wade through all the information
about chemo and medications," she said. "I don't know what I would
do if I didn't have her."
Patricia says that anyone who finds out they have cancer should not be shy
to ask a friend or family member to go with them to their appointments, especially
in the beginning. "Because when you find out you have something like this,
you can act all right, not act like you're devastated, but you still have 50
million things going through your mind. There's no way you can remember it all.
You can't take it all in.
"If you don't have a friend or family member to help you," she says,
"you should take advantage of the services the hospital offers. It's really
So far, her treatment hasn't made her feel bad at all. Some of her blood counts
are low, indicating that her immune system isn't functioning the way it should,
and her doctors have told her it's best to stay away from public places. For
Patricia, the hardest part about that is not going to work. "Who are they
going to get to work in the store?" she worries.
And as is so common with chemotherapy treatment, her hair has fallen out, and
that's been hard. "The worst part right now," she says, "is losing
my hair. It's so awful. It makes me cry every time I mention it."
Over all, when it comes to Patricia and her family, the impression is that
everybody else is sadder and more upset than Patricia herself. There are lots
of tears, but mostly from the kids. And her children wish she had told them
about the possibility of lung cancer as soon as that first scan showed, as Patricia
put it, "some little trouble" in her lungs.
"What was going through your mind," Mairi Pat asks her, "when
you were having all those tests and you weren't telling anybody?"
"Listen," says Patricia, "if I were a young woman with three
young children, I would be going crazy, I'd be so upset. But in a way, I feel
like I'm lucky. I've got time to plan. I'm not like someone who suddenly has
a stroke and can't say or do anything. I can take care of my will the way I
want to. I can look around and say, 'You get this and you get this
"I'm 77 years old," she continues, "and I've been smoking all
these years. I figured, 'This is the breaks of the game.' I've had a good life.
I've got to go some time. It could be a lot worse than this."
For more information about lung cancer, read here:. OCTOBER
DECEMBER 2003 Cancer E-Magazines.
Personal Interview With "Patricia"