Coping with a lung cancer diagnosis at age 18

As an 18-year-old, Lauren Rodriguez never suspected her lingering cough would turn out to be a lung cancer symptom.

“I was in shock,” Lauren says of her lung cancer diagnosis. “I never suspected something like that.”

Today, Lauren’s cancer-free, thanks to her MD Anderson care team. But cancer has changed how the now-19-year-old views life.

“I’ve been given a second chance,” she says.

The first lung cancer symptoms   

In February 2017, Lauren developed a cough that wouldn’t go away. The then-high school senior knew it wasn’t asthma — like the doctors in her hometown of Mansfield, Texas, had said. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it kept getting worse. At times, she coughed up blood, or coughed so much she became sick to her stomach. Appointment after appointment left her with few answers.

In June 2017, she saw a pulmonologist in nearby Dallas, who ran a CT scan. The scan revealed a very small carcinoid tumor on one of her lungs.

Lauren had never smoked, and, aside from the cough, she’d never had trouble breathing. She had planned on starting classes the following month at Tarrant County College, but decided to delay her studies to focus on her lung cancer treatment.  

Coming to MD Anderson for a second opinion

Lauren’s fears continued to grow after she saw a lung cancer surgeon in Dallas. There, the care team outlined a complicated surgery, which would require multiple incisions and chest tubes to help her breathe after surgery. While the chest tubes would only be temporary, she would still have to leave the hospital with them. She was nervous about the risk of infection or injury.

Spotting her daughter’s anxiety, Lauren’s mom suggested they seek a second opinion at MD Anderson. Lauren wanted to get the surgery over with, but she listened to her mom as she described the cancer center’s world-class reputation and finally agreed.

Choosing MD Anderson in Sugar Land for lung cancer treatment

On July 26, 2017, Lauren and her mom drove nearly four hours to see lung cancer surgeon Mara Antonoff, M.D. at MD Anderson in Sugar Land.

“From the moment I met her, I knew this was the surgeon I needed,” Lauren says. “She was so nice and down to earth. She was easy to talk to.”

Antonoff outlined the surgery she planned to perform. She would use a surgical technique that only required one incision and one chest tube, which would be removed before Lauren left the hospital.

“I was so relieved,” Lauren says.

Undergoing lung cancer surgery during Hurricane Harvey

On Aug. 25, 2017, Lauren underwent lung cancer surgery at MD Anderson’s Texas Medical Center Campus. The surgery went smoothly, and Lauren was declared cancer-free.

That same day, Hurricane Harvey made landfall. Lauren’s family members, who were staying at a local hotel, had to evacuate to another one nearby. Meanwhile, Lauren and her mom looked out onto Houston’s flooded streets from the observation deck on Floor 24 of MD Anderson’s Main Building.

“Outside of the hospital, it looked like chaos, but inside, everything ran smoothly,” Lauren says. “The staff was constantly checking to make sure we were comfortable.”

Seven days later, Lauren and her family returned home, happy to leave both lung cancer and Hurricane Harvey behind them.

Life after lung cancer treatment

Today, Lauren is taking classes at Tarrant County College and making plans to transfer to a larger school next year. She returns to MD Anderson every six months for follow-up scans.

Lauren says she feels lucky. Her cancer treatment seemed easy compared to some patients she’s known. But the experience has left her with more than just a scar.

“I have a better heart and a better head on my shoulders,” she says. “It’s changed who I am as a person.”

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