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Six Months with Lung Cancer

Posted on January 14, 2011, 6:33 AM
Six Months with Lung Cancer

By Suzanne Friedman

Over the last 15 years, I can recall having one cold. As the Director of the Breath of Dao, a Chinese medicine clinic, I was no stranger to healthy living. So when I got a cough in December of 2009, I didn’t think much of it. I thought, “Ok, I’ll just take herbs.”  But those didn’t help at all.  So I took stronger herbs. Those didn’t help either.

After nearly a month the cough persisted, so I went to my western medicine doctor who prescribed antibiotics.  In the last 15 years, I hadn’t taken an aspirin, much less antibiotics.  The antibiotics had no effect. Then I tried a steroidal inhaler for two weeks, but I just kept getting worse and worse.

Finally, in early February of 2010, I coughed so hard that I broke two ribs, one on each side.  A chest x-ray revealed solar systems in my chest - the doctors thought maybe it was a combined viral and fungal infection. My doctor had always said, “You’re my healthiest patient!”  So no one was thinking cancer.

But a CAT scan and a bronchoscopy told a different story: it was lung cancer. My right lung had collapsed from the tumor and the cancer was also in my left lung and my lymph nodes.

As a nationally licensed acupuncturist and herbalist with a master’s degree and doctorate in medical qigong therapy, I’d been working closely with cancer patients using Chinese medicine at my clinic for years so I immediately asked, “What stage?”  He said, stage four.  And of course, there is no stage five.  In my head, I just started making preparations for how I would tell everyone I was going to die.

I called my parents and said. “Listen, I have stage four lung cancer, it’s in-operable.  Mom, I’m preparing for my death and I really need you to start to prepare as well.”  My mom, ever the elementary school teacher said, “Can we put a more positive spin on this?”  I said. “No. No, mom.”

I went to an oncologist. I immediately didn’t like him; he never touched me, or listened to me. He gave me two years to live if I began chemotherapy immediately, eight months to live if I didn’t. I left that appointment with a scheduled follow-up, but in my heart I knew I would probably never go back.

I started calling other practitioners who I felt were on the cutting edge in the cancer treatment community. I talked to lots of people. I wanted to forge my own treatment path, but meanwhile everyone around me was saying, “hurry up - or you’re gonna die.”

I emailed the first oncologist and told him I wasn’t coming to my appointment. He tried to change my mind: judging from my labored breathing, he told me, I really couldn’t afford to miss it.  My pulmonologist, who I trust, told me to listen to my oncologist.  They were both worried I would become too sick to be treated. The pulmonologist said I had a maximum of a week to make a decision. That was February of 2010. I never did go back to that oncologist.

By September of 2010, I was cancer free with no evidence of disease. The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is less than 20 percent, so this story may be a rare one, but it did happen to me.

When I was diagnosed, I couldn’t even walk from my curb to the front door.  I tried to walk a block and I couldn’t.  I was tired and worn down, but my spirits were still strong.

Someone referred me a lab in Long Beach, which focuses on sensitivity testing of cells to create personalized drug combinations.  This is different from the more standard molecular profiling. Not only was it not covered by my insurance, in order to have the test, I had to find a doctor willing to break hospital protocol, cut out my lymph node, and deliver it to my family, who then FedExed it to the lab.

The lab tested the cancerous node, and it turned out that I won the genetic lottery:  I tested EGFR positive, a genetic mutation that indicates that the cancer will respond well to the drug Tarceva.

In the meantime, I found an integrated medicine oncologist to review the results with me.  He wanted to put me on Tarceva (a targeted therapy) and Avastin (monoclonal antibody).  I also find out that I won the gene pool lottery, and I have this one mutation that makes Tarceva work even better. 

I went up to my new doctor and said, “I’m going to be your new favorite success story.”  He was amazing. He wasn’t afraid of me. He got me oxygen. He treated me like a real person.

As I was waiting for the drugs to come in, I got more good news from the lab - they told me that the doctor just came skipping out with my results. He had never seen anyone’s cancer respond so well to the combination of Tarceva and Avastin.

“We have had a series of patients with similar profiles achieve complete and durable remissions.”  That’s what the lab results said.  I read it over the phone to my parents.  My dad just kept saying, “Read it again.  Read it again.  Read it again.”

Meanwhile I had created my own complimentary medicinal routine with a combination of western and Chinese herbs, meditation, qi gong, and a super strict diet.  I began walking hills to try and get my lungs back. I closed my clinic. I stopped treating people. I had to treat myself. 

My lung had collapsed; I was told it would take months for it to come back. It took less than a month.
My first CAT scan was in May. 70% of the cancer was gone in those two months.

After three months, the doctor said, “If I listened to your lungs, I would think you were an athlete.”

By July the doctor wrote NED: no evidence of disease. I was diagnosed at the end of February, began treatment in March, and by July I had no evidence of disease.  September’s CAT scan was completely cancer free.

The poetry of this is that in the time I was told that I had left to live, I had healed. I didn’t expect it.
My parents were amazing. They just spread their wings and embraced me. It was the most amazing thing to watch what people were capable of and what humanity was capable of giving.

With cancer, you are terrified. You put yourself in the hands of someone you don’t know.  I was never willing to completely do that, which is why I was so happy to have been able to find the right doctors who worked with me to treat the cancer.

I have not stopped working on healing. I am going at this every single way I can to get at the root of the disease.  Western medicine kills the weed. Chinese medicine says, “Let’s kill the root.”  Anything I can address holistically, I am addressing.  Cancer is a fulltime job with crappy hours and no benefits. I was always a happy and appreciative person. But now I am beyond myself with appreciation. Since I am allowed to live, I am very, very alive. And it feels great.

Suzanne Friedman is a Chinese medicine doctor, professor, and author in San Francisco, California.  She is an award winning haiku poet and plays the shakuhachi (Japanese Zen flute).

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