“If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer,” said Leslie LaChance, professor of English at Vol State who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in November of 2017. She added that lung cancer is one of the most underfunded, under researched, and highly stigmatized cancers that exist. It’s considered a smoker’s cancer, yet anyone can get it.
“I developed a really bad cough, it wasn’t going away. My doctor and I thought that it was my asthma flaring up and that I needed to get on a different inhaler. A few days later I got a little lump in my neck. It was a lymph node that had swollen up, which could be a sign of something infectious or of something metastatic,” she explained. In her case, it was metastatic. After seeing multiple doctors and receiving CT scans, she got a call two days later stating that it was lung cancer and had spread to her lymphatic system. At stage four, the cancer was technically incurable, yet it was treatable.
Leslie discovered that it was an extremely rare form, caused by a genetic mutation of the ROS1 gene. Her doctor informed her of a drug specifically designed to treat her type of cancer through targeted therapy. On the day she was supposed to begin the treatment, she woke up unable to breathe. She called her doctor, who told her to get to the ER right away. Upon arrival, Leslie had emergency heart surgery.
“I’m lucky I woke up, because what happened was a bunch of cancer cells had attacked the fluid around my heart and the pericardium, there was all kind of fluid buildup around the heart.” Following the heart surgery, she began the treatment.
“Sadly, in May, I had some follow up scans and it showed that the drug had stopped working.” The cancer had developed a resistance to the drug. “Cancer is really clever and it will do whatever it can to survive.” It had metastasized to her brain. “I had about 20 small tumors in my brain.” At that point there were no drugs available, that she knew of, to treat her type of cancer that had spread to the brain. “The only solution was to go into a chemotherapy kind of thing, and I would have had to have whole brain radiation,” she said.
Leslie began doing research. A lot of it. “I tried to Google myself to PhD in lung cancer.” In the meantime, she joined a Facebook support group for those with ROS1 cancer. “It’s a group that calls themselves the ROS1DERS (pronounced ROS wonders) because we keep finding ways to stay alive apparently.”
From the support group, she located a clinical trial in Boston for another targeted therapy that would treat her type of cancer both in the brain and body, by penetrating the blood-brain barrier. She qualified for the trial. “I got myself a plane ticket and I was there the next week.”
By July, she had no evidence of disease in her body. “All of the tumors in my brain were gone, I just had a tiny little bit, and by September that tiny little bit was gone. It does not mean I’m cured. It means I have no visible cancer in my body. I have it at the molecular level, but as long as this drug keeps it suppressed, I won’t have tumor growth. So, I can kind of walk around like a normal person.” The current side effects that she’s dealing with are fatigue, forgetfulness, and neuropathy in her hands. “Different things work for different people. So many factors determine it. This just happened to work for me. So, I come up lucky on this one … We don’t know how long it will work for, or how long I’ll be able to tolerate it,” she explained.
“The most important thing I’ve discovered is that it’s really important to be your own best advocate. Play an active role in your treatment and treatment decisions. Think of your doctor more as a partner, not necessarily as the person in charge … I’m going to be that person that tells people to do their own research. By doing research, I learned it’s good to do research.”
November is lung cancer awareness month. Leslie’s first year “cancerversary” was on Nov. 9, 2018, which was the day she was diagnosed in 2017. LUNGevity Foundation is one of the major fundraisers for lung cancer research, also providing patient education and support. They’ll host a walk on November 17th at 8:00 A.M. in Nashville, and you can get involved. Colleagues of Leslie have formulated a support group called the “Lit Wits” who will participate in the event together.
Please visit LUNGevity.org/Nashville
to register to volunteer or to find out more information. To donate to or join Leslie’s group, please search “Lit Wits” in the search bar on the website.
Leslie is retiring from Vol State at the end of the current fall semester. She plans to return to next fall as an adjunct faculty member. Leslie has been channeling her writing energy into her blog, which she started in response to her journey with cancer. You can follow her blog at: sojournandstardust.blogspot.com
-By Rachel Keyes