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Toni’s Story

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Keeping a Positive Attitude and Helping Others with a Lung Cancer Diagnosis

Toni recovered from a Stage III diagnosis to reach out and inspire others.

Toni of South Lebanon thought she had pulled a muscle in her side. Her husband thought she was having a heart attack. At first, her doctor gave her a pill for the pain. But when the pain didn’t subside, her doctor suggested a chest X-ray.

The diagnosis of Stage III lung cancer for this otherwise healthy 60-year-old non-smoker was a shock.

“I thought, Oh my God, I’m going to die!”

Even before her treatment began, she was not satisfied with the answers and lack of a plan that her oncologist was giving her. Her boss recommended the University of Cincinnati Cancer Institute at UC Health. There, specialists from different areas work together seamlessly as a team.

“After the diagnosis, my daughter took me aside and told me to cry my eyes out that night, but the next morning, to go in fighting. And when I met the expert team at the UC Cancer Institute, I knew I had a chance.”

At the UC Comprehensive Lung Cancer Center, dedicated lung cancer screening specialists took Toni’s chest X-ray, which showed a suspicious shadow in her right lung. A CT-scan confirmed the presence of a 2 x 1 inch lung mass, with enlarged lymph nodes at the root of the right lung. She underwent a bronchoscopy and biopsy, which came out positive for invasive moderately differentiated adenocarcinoma of the lung. This is a moderately aggressive type of lung cancer.

To determine if Toni was a candidate for surgery, a dedicated thoracic surgeon performed a procedure in the operating room called mediastinoscopy, where a small incision was made at the base of her neck and a special scope located and biopsied several lymph nodes in the center of her chest. While technically operable, these lymph nodes placed Toni at risk for recurrence and the spread of her cancer.

The UC Cancer Institute is one of only a handful of academic health centers across the country to have a phase-1 clinical trials program that can offer the newest drug therapies for cancer, and it is the only program in the region with a team of experts focused solely on treating and studying all stages of lung cancer. At the UC Comprehensive Lung Cancer Center, Toni’s multidisciplinary team included hematology oncologist and professor at the UC College of Medicine John Morris, MD, who also heads up the molecular therapeutics program.

She agreed to participate in a national clinical trial where patients with Stage III lung cancer receive chemotherapy with or without a biological agent called panitumumab along with radiation before surgery. Panitumumab is a biological agent that seeks out certain types of cancer cells, binds to them and kills them.

After six chemotherapy treatments and radiation therapy, Toni’s tumor began to shrink, and she underwent successful surgery by thoracic surgeon and associate professor at the UC College of Medicine Sandra Starnes, MD, to remove her tumor and the lymph nodes. Once Toni recovered from surgery, she continued with two cycles of post-operative chemotherapy. Today, there is no sign of the cancer.

“I would put on my high heels and lipstick and work during chemo. I thought, ‘I’m not going to let it get me down!’ There are people who give up—you can’t give up! You have to keep a positive attitude.”

Toni continued to work as a manager at Presto Foods through the nine months of treatment. With three grandchildren and another on the way, she had a lot to live for.

“You absolutely have to have your family, your friends, your work. My doctors were amazing. If you have that, you can make it. I had the full circle. I was very fortunate.”

Recently, Toni’s daughter said to her, “Mom, I’m glad you’re so much better, but I’m going to miss Dr. Starnes.”

“We all grew attached to each other, the medical team and my family—you usually don’t have that,” Toni said. One day after therapy, she ran into her radiation oncologist, William Barrett, MD, in the hallway. “Maybe I seemed low to him. He walked me through the ‘walk of fame’ and showed me every picture on the wall. We spent an hour walking around. It was a Friday afternoon. When I left, I felt like a different person.”

Now, she takes the time to send a card, listen, donate—and connect with people more. Any time she hears about someone who has cancer, she lends a supportive ear. Toni was a guest speaker telling her story at the Hope. Fight. Breathe. Lung Cancer Symposium on Nov. 1, 2014. Any way she can give back, she is determined to make the effort.

“Lung cancer changed my life,” Toni said. “We need to stand up and help others—that is my goal moving forward.”

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