Sue’s Cancer Journey of Hope

The diagnosis

In October of 2012, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer.  I was fortunate to be referred to the Rapid Diagnostic Unit at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto where I was assigned to Dr. David McCreedy. His gentle bedside manner was instrumental in alleviating many of my fears.  Since I was stage one, I had a lumpectomy in December 2012 followed by less than a month of radiation in 2013.  Following that I was placed on Tamoxifen with no need for chemo treatment. That expert treatment allowed out lives to return to normal. In the spring of 2013, my husband and I were able to get back to our retirement activities of travel and golf.

5 year ‘clear’ anniversary

In the summer of 2017 as I was coming up on my 5 year ‘clear’ anniversary, I developed a persistent cough.  A chest x-ray in December of that year revealed I had pneumonia.  I was given an antibiotic treatment which quickly chased the pneumonia away, allowing my husband and I to head south to our Florida winter get-away.

Stage 4 lung cancer

On a brief trip home at the end of January, my GP sent me for a follow-up chest x-ray just to ensure that my lungs were clear.  The x-ray showed a suspicious shadow on my left lung which a follow up MRI identified as potentially malignant.  I was then referred to Dr. Pierre at Toronto General Hospital.  There were more tests and Dr. Pierre diagnosed me with stage 4 lung cancer which had metastasized to my sacrum and lower spine. It was inoperable.  Dr. Pierre referred me to the lung oncology clinic at PMCC and I was again extremely fortunate to be referred to another wonderful doctor, Dr. Geoffrey Liu.  My cancer diagnosis was devastating news.  Just when I was about to celebrate 5 years of being cancer free, here I was, diagnosed again with an even more serious form of cancer!   Our planned 3-month winter stay in Florida came to a very abrupt end in February 2018.

February 2018 – hope and despair

Dr. Liu turned out to be a blessing to my husband and me.  He was so full of positive energy which radiated from him every time we met. He quickly changed our fears into hope.  Since I was asymptomatic, other than a slight cough, the decision was to enter a period of watchful monitoring.  Our normal lives continued with walking, dinners out, theatre and travel.  In April of 2018, on a short family visit to Ireland, I began to experience angina and walking even for a short distance  became difficult.  We returned home in early May and I had an ECG at Mount Sinai which resulted in my immediate admission to their cardiac unit.  I was a heart attack just waiting to happen.  Ten days later, I was released after undergoing the insertion of three stents in badly blocked arteries.  This was an exceedingly difficult period requiring extensive cooperation between the cardiac doctors in Mount Sinai and Dr. Liu at PMCC.  Added to all of this, my stepfather passed away on St. Patrick’s Day. To say we were stressed does not even begin to describe it.

Immunotherapy and Pallative Care

From this point on, my health began to deteriorate further.  By July of 2018 I needed fluid drained from my left lung and following that I began radiation.  This however did not prevent the fluid from gathering again, and in August I was admitted to PMCC to have my lung completely drained.  I had 4 litres of fluid drained from my lung, followed by a *pleurodesis to prevent any further build up of fluid.  *Pleurodesis is a medical procedure in which the pleural space in the lung is artificially obliterated.

During this time, two significant events happened.  First, I was identified as being eligible for immunotherapy treatment to the delight of Dr. Liu, my husband and myself and second, I was assigned to Dr. Mak as my palliative care doctor.  Our initial meeting with Dr. Mak was stressful as I incorrectly equated palliative care with hospice care.  However, again thanks to Dr. Mak, another wonderful gentle doctor, my worst fears were put to rest.  He explained that his role was to help provide me with the best possible quality of life for as long as possible and not to help me die!

However, again thanks to Dr. Mak, another wonderful gentle doctor, my worst fears were put to rest.  He explained that his role was to help provide me with the best possible quality of life for as long as possible and not to help me die!

In September of 2018, I began immunotherapy under the care of Dr. Liu and being monitored by Dr. Mak.  Unfortunately, I turned out to be one of those patients for whom immunotherapy does not work.  My health continued to deteriorate, the cancer continued to slowly grow, and I began losing weight, appetite, and strength to the point where I was having difficulty understanding what was happening to me.  I had difficulty getting out of bed, eating, and walking.  By January, Dr. Liu decided that the immunotherapy was not working, and I would have to be taken out of the immunotherapy program and switched to traditional chemo.

Chemotherapy

I was terrified of chemotherapy, but Dr. Liu persuaded me to trust him and at least give it a try.  On January of 2019, I began my chemo treatments.  I also began taking special dietary supplements as I was losing my ability to swallow solid foods and liquids.  Within a noticeably short space of time, my weight loss started to reverse, and I began to gain my weight back!  To my amazement and delight, my chemo treatment did not result in any side effects.  However, a referral to a swallowing assessment centre revealed a paralysis in one of my vocal cords which was causing me to aspirate while eating and drinking.  A long story short, I was referred to St. Michael’s Hospital where my swallowing issue was resolved with a short procedure.  I will probably require a repeat procedure this coming summer of 2020, COVID-19 permitting.

Gratitude

I am still around two years after the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer and eight years after my initial diagnosis of Stage 1 breast cancer.  I will not be running any marathons any time soon.  My walking is still not back to where it was pre-cancer.  I am not totally confident I will be able to play golf with my husband Trevor, but I sure as heck will try.  My health had improved to the point where we were able to travel throughout Ontario and Quebec with our relatives from Ireland in the summer of 2019.  That fall, we did back-to-back cruises in the Mediterranean and Atlantic.  However, just prior to that my mother passed away adding yet more stress. In February of 2020, Trevor and I were able to get away again for a Caribbean cruise followed by 5 days in Key West and we got lucky once again. We dodged the bullet of  COVID-19 which was just emerging at this time.

I will not be running any marathons any time soon.  My walking is still not back to where it was pre-cancer.  I am not totally confident I will be able to play golf with my husband Trevor, but I sure as heck will try.

Where do I go from here?

For now my chemo treatments are on hold thanks to COVID-19, but as  Dr. Liu explained to me via virtual meetings,  my cancer is stable and the risk associated with being exposed to COVID-19 far outweigh any risk I am a currently facing from my cancer.  However, he continues to keep a close watch on me with virtual meetings and CT/MRI scans.

My husband and I have been blessed in so many ways:  Wonderful caring doctors and nursing and administrative staff at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, as well as an amazing network of family and friends who have been there for us during this whole journey.  Without their support – all of them – we do not know if we could have made it through this time.  It is a journey, albeit not one we chose to make and certainly not one whose path can be predicted. But thanks to PMCC, TGH, Mt. Sinai and St. Mikes, and all our family and friends, we are still relatively healthy and able to enjoy life to its fullest.  It is a different life that what we had planned, but still a life filled with blessings and riches.  We will be forever grateful.  We are blessed to live in Canada and to have the health care system we have, and especially blessed to have one of the top 5 cancer centres in the world right on our doorstep – Princess Margaret Cancer Centre!

Sue Leathem

Update – May 20, 2020

Today Sue was given the best news.  Her cancer is in remission!