Something those of us without lung cancer can’t comprehend, but those living with lung cancer understand only too well, is how pervasive lung cancer is -- how it penetrates every thought. And those of us on the outside, no matter how many books we read, can’t really understand how to cope with something that never leaves your mind. How do you get through a day with cancer?
Talking with Dennis Zbaldo, a lung cancer survivor, opened my eyes to the world of living with lung cancer. “Once you get cancer, cancer becomes your (unwelcome) friend," he says. "It is always there, almost like another person that is there with you all the time. It is there when you wake up, when you go to bed, and during the day when you have downtime -- even during TV commercials. You are not the person you were before you had cancer.”
Listening to Dennis, I sensed immediately that he held a goldmine of tips and inspiration for those living with lung cancer. He has that wisdom and insight that can only be gained from “on-the-job training.”
What does Dennis recommend to get through a day with lung cancer? I’ll share more of his thoughts, but first:
Who Is this Man Who Understands So Well?Dennis Zbaldo is a loving (and adored) husband with a grown daughter and son. He is a 5-year survivor of bronchioloalveolar carcinoma (BAC), a form of non-small cell lung cancer. Like many of you, he was healthy and robust, living life to the fullest when cancer surprisingly hit. He quotes the Beatles in saying, “life is what happens to you while you’re making plans.”
Having returned from a hunting trip in South Africa, followed by a trip to Montana where he was very active, he was concerned about a stabbing pain in his back. Thinking he had pneumonia again, he saw his physician. An x-ray revealed spots on his lungs consistent with pneumonia, and he was treated with antibiotics. This was followed by another course of antibiotics when the spots failed to clear.
And then a further delay in diagnosis. Dennis was aggressive in managing his health and saw a pulmonologist the next day. For the next 4 months, he was treated for a lung condition that was not felt to be cancer. When his symptoms persisted, he was finally advised that a biopsy should be done, but that it was not urgent and “he could do it anytime in the next 6 months.” Unwilling to wait, he was scheduled soon for a needle biopsy. After 4 anxious hours of waiting, his wife learned that the upper lobe of his left lung had been removed due to a complication from the procedure. He now faced a diagnosis of lung cancer, and the need to adapt to living with less lung tissue (unnecessary, he states, since the cancer was in all lobes).
Robust going into surgery, Dennis now had a hard time building up his endurance despite daily workouts. “In truth, it takes a lot to get anything done. Going to the mailbox was a major event. It was a big chore to go to the doctor. It takes your breath away.”
On the up side, it is clear that Dennis is a “glass half full” person as he talks about his treatment. He reassures us that chemotherapy today is nothing like it was years ago. “They have pretty much eliminated the nausea. You are going to lose your hair. You will have a bad week.”
He was fortunate to finish chemotherapy at the same time that Tarceva (erlotinib), a form of targeted therapy, was approved for general use. On Tarceva now for four years, he had substantial regression in his lung cancer, although now his cancer is becoming resistant to the medication. An acne-type rash is a common side effect of this treatment, but once again, Dennis puts this in a positive light. “I blossomed acne, but was happy because it meant the Tarceva was working.”
Looking at the future Dennis says, “I know I’m going to die of lung cancer (unless I die from a heart attack). It’s not curable.” His job now, he says, is to “live long enough for the next pill.” After all, he jokes, his wife needs him to return things she buys to the store.