Coping with lung cancer and heart disease

I was preparing for heart surgery when I received a lung cancer diagnosis. The two health problems could have had dire results, but fortunately, I found a thoracic surgeon at MD Anderson who could help me navigate not one, but two complicated surgeries – and come out cancer-free.

A sarcomatoid carcinoma diagnosis

I was first diagnosed with aortic stenosis in 2010, and by February 2016 I knew it would need to be repaired surgically, but given the risks, my cardiologist recommended I wait six months.

Then, in April, I started coughing up blood. I thought it was allergies. Even though it stopped, I went to see my doctor. A chest X-ray came back abnormal, so I was sent to a pulmonologist, who ordered a CT scan and found a 3-cm tumor in the lower lobe of my right lung. The pulmonologist then did a biopsy, which revealed a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer called sarcomatoid carcinoma.

My lung cancer surgery at MD Anderson

On May 26, I saw Dr. Mara Antonoff at MD Anderson.  She warned me that it was too risky to operate on my lung without first replacing my aortic valve. I discussed options with my cardiologist, who recommended one surgery to replace the heart valve and remove the tumor at the same time. But that seemed like two very different types of operations requiring different skill sets. I turned his idea down.

My wife and I were in despair, but Dr. Antonoff had a plan. She referred me to one of her research partners who does minimally invasive valve surgery. He recommended that I undergo a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, which offers a short recovery time.

A month later, on July 14, I had my second surgery. Dr. Antonoff removed the tumor, and discovered that while it had grown in size, the lung cancer hadn’t spread to other parts of my body. I was in the hospital for four nights, and recovery was easy. I felt well enough to walk my dog as soon as I got home.

My chemotherapy treatment

A month later, I began infusions of the chemotherapy drug cisplatin as a precaution. I received my chemo infusions at MD Anderson in Sugar Land, which is closer to my home. But the side effects were almost unbearable. I complained to my oncologist, Dr. Janet Tu, who switched me to a different chemotherapy drug – carboplatin — for the rest of the treatments. Research has showed that it’s only marginally less effective than cisplatin, and, for me, it was much easier to tolerate.

Two years later, I now return to MD Anderson every six months for check-ups. My scans remain clear, but Dr. Antonoff says I’m stuck with her. I’m very happy about this.

Looking back, I wish I’d gone to MD Anderson sooner. I wasted a total of six weeks waiting on diagnoses, referrals and appointments with other doctors before I finally made it to MD Anderson. Sometimes I wonder if I could have avoided chemotherapy if the tumor had been removed earlier.

However, I’m glad to have found doctors who advocate for me, whether it’s by finding a different chemotherapy medication with less side effects and similar results, or collaborating with a surgeon at another hospital. I’m grateful to put heart disease and lung cancer behind me – and still feel well enough to walk my dog and then some.

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