Finding the silver lining in lung cancer

Looking for the silver lining

Having hope in the face of lung cancer

After serving 20 years in the Royal Australian Navy, looking for the silver lining in the face of challenging news has always been an important part of Ron’s life. 

The 77-year-old from Queensland was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in February 2016, after visiting the doctor with a concern about possible pneumonia. 

“I was coughing a lot. I went to the doctor and he thought I had pneumonia…I'd had this same coughing a couple of years earlier, but then it disappeared, then I got it again.”

An initial X-ray showed a shadow on Ron’s lungs, which required further investigation. After additional scans and tests, Ron was diagnosed with metastatic non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) – an advanced type of lung cancer that has spread beyond the lungs into other areas of the body. Self-described as “cheeky” and “always happy”, Ron took the news of his lung cancer diagnosis in his stride.

Despite having given up smoking more than 26 years prior to his lung cancer diagnosis, Ron admits that many people still assume he is a smoker; demonstrating the ongoing stigma that Australians living with lung cancer face.1

“My wife Shirley said I was burying my head in the sand, but I didn’t consider that to be the case. Things happen for a purpose most times and sometimes, there's nothing you can do about it. And this is one of those times, and I thought, right. I've got cancer. Accept it. Nothing you can do about it except try and get rid of it…I was then told it wasn't curable. And I thought, well, I could still get hit by a bus.”

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Despite having given up smoking more than 26 years prior to his lung cancer diagnosis, Ron admits that many people still assume he is a smoker; demonstrating the ongoing stigma that Australians living with lung cancer face.1

 

As Ron’s cancer had metastasised beyond his lungs, including tumours on his pelvic bone, surgery was quickly ruled out as a possible treatment option. Ron started radiation therapy -  which he says “stirred it [the lung cancer] up. It got bigger, but not as congested” - while his tumour tissue was tested for possible biomarkers that could hopefully lead to more targeted treatment options.

The initial radiation treatment had an impact on Ron: “I wasn't able to go out for tea with the family or anything like that because I just couldn't eat a big meal at that particular stage…I used to feel sick after…. I'd lost too much body weight; I think I'd lost about 14 kilos.”

It also curtailed his involvement in the sports he has been passionate about since leaving the Navy - dog obedience and competitive dog tracking; which often required covering distances from 1.2 kilometres up to 15 kilometres, if he was judging over farmland terrain.

The results of Ron’s tumour tissue testing was negative for genetic mutations, which meant he could be considered for a clinical trial that was recruiting patients in Brisbane. 

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With the help of his oncologist, Ron was accepted into the clinical trial investigating a combination of an immunotherapy with an anti-angiogenic agent and chemotherapy. Immunotherapy works by using the body's own immune system to better recognise and attack cancer cells, whilst anti-angiogenic treatment prevents or slows tumour growth by starving tumours of their blood supply.2

Ron was overjoyed at getting into the trial, which started in July 2016. He recently celebrated his 50th treatment as part of the clinical trial – an occasion Ron and his wife Shirley marked by bringing in homemade sausage rolls for the hospital staff!

For Ron, being a part of the clinical trial has meant he has been able to forge relationships with the hospital staff, giving him a sense of community away from his family.

“I look forward to coming here every three weeks… They're all brilliant. And I think because we're a small hospital, we’re more of a family.”

While living with lung cancer is still not without its challenges, such as feeling the cold and ongoing aches and pains in his muscles; Ron’s advice to others diagnosed with lung cancer is to listen to their doctors and be open to all possible options.

"Let the doctors look after you. That's all I can say…They're the experts.”

When Ron was first diagnosed, doctors told him the prognosis for his type of lung cancer is typically 7-10 months. Now, more than three years on from his diagnosis, Ron is grateful to be doing well. He enjoys spending quality time with Shirley, their four adult children and six grandchildren; and taking the occasional cruise ship holiday, giving Ron time back on the open seas. 

References

  1. Lung Foundation Australia & PricewaterhouseCoopers. Making Lung Cancer A Fair Fight: A Blueprint for Reform. 24 October 2018.
  2. Cancer Council of Australia. Understanding Immunotherapy: A Guide for People Affected by Cancer, 2019. Available at: https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/lung-cancer/treatment/immunotherapy. [Accessed August 2019].