Jane Fausel has always believed in taking care of her health. She loves working in the earth at her north-central Phoenix home, does water aerobics and Chinese breathing exercises, has never smoked. So she was shocked by the diagnosis she received in January 2007.
“Around Christmas, I started coughing severely,” Jane recalls. “At first, I thought it was just due to the Arizona desert weather.” But when Jane began coughing up pink-tinged fluid, she saw her doctor and underwent a battery of tests. The diagnosis was lung cancer.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States among both men and women. It claims more lives than colon, prostate and breast cancer combined.
“I was shocked,” Jane recalls, “especially since I was a nonsmoker.” Smoking accounts for about 85 to 90 percent of lung cancer cases. Other causes include exposure to radon, asbestos and secondhand smoke. Women have the highest incidence of nonsmoking-related lung cancer.
From bad to worse
Doctors are unsure what caused Jane’s lung cancer. Fortunately, the tumor was localized to a small spot in the upper lobe of her left lung. She had surgery to remove the malignant tissue, which was categorized as stage one (the earliest form), and Jane was deemed to be cancer-free.
“I was happy as a bird!” Jane recalls. But just 11 months later, fluid built up under her left lung, and another scan showed the cancer had recurred. “It shocked me, the doctors, everyone,” Jane says. This time the cancer was diagnosed as stage four — the most advanced.
“If I’d had chemotherapy after my first surgery, I don’t think this would have happened,” Jane reflects. “But being depressed wasn’t going to help. So I decided to do everything I could to cure my disease.”
This time, doctors suggested an aggressive chemotherapy regimen involving four different drugs administered weekly. “But I was afraid that my little old body wouldn’t survive the treatment,” Jane says. Her son, a surgeon in California, insisted that she receive a second opinion. Jane was referred to Helen Ross, M.D, a medical oncologist at Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus, who specializes in lung cancers.
A team on her side
Mayo’s team approach means that patients receive personalized care coordinated by a physician who works closely with other specialist colleagues to ensure the best and most effective treatment. Dr. Ross works with a team of lung cancer specialists that includes medical and radiation oncologists, thoracic surgeons and pulmonologists. Dr. Ross can involve other specialists, as needed.
Dr. Ross devised a one-year chemotherapy regimen, running from June 2008 to June 2009. Jane’s progress was carefully tracked through blood tests and CT scans every six to eight weeks. “I was improving each time,” Jane recalls. “Dr. Ross and her assistants would tell me, ‘This scan was even better than the last one.’ And that made me so happy!”
Jane supplemented her chemotherapy with traditional Chinese medicine, which she discussed in detail with Dr. Ross. Mayo Clinic’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Clinic can provide medical guidance on various nontraditional approaches.
Dr. Ross advised Jane that although she couldn’t provide detailed opinions about non-traditional medicine, Jane could proceed if she wished, and the Mayo team would carefully watch her condition. Jane was advised to avoid the Chinese medicine around her treatment days to prevent any interaction with the chemotherapy. “As long as I continued to improve, the Mayo team suggested that the herbs weren’t hurting me,” Jane says. “I appreciate how open my doctors were to discussing all my treatment options.”
Now that the chemotherapy regimen has finished, “I feel like a new person!” Jane says enthusiastically. Recently, Jane and Donald moved to an independent living facility “to help us stay healthy,” she explains. She visits a local gym six days a week to exercise in a water aerobics class and also spends time performing Chinese breathing exercises.
Jane urges others: “Take care of your health. It’s your capital, your principal investment. And no one can do it but you.”
“But having a good team on your side doesn’t hurt!” she says with a laugh. “Especially a team like Mayo Clinic!”