By Ivy Elkins
The return of the Thanksgiving season always lifts my spirits, marked by the cheerful gathering of friends and family to celebrate our journeys. During this time of memories, old and new, I pause to reflect upon a few of my own, in a redefined context I never anticipated. November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and while it now arrives with a sobering relevance for me, it appropriately concludes with a ceremony of gratitude.
I was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer just after Christmas in 2013. I was in my late forties, raising two boys, and had never smoked a day in my life. Being diagnosed with lung cancer upended my life. It all started with some pain in my neck and elbow, which my primary care physician attributed to the extra hours I’d been spending online planning my oldest son’s bar mitzvah. Over the next several months, I saw two physical therapists, two orthopedists, a rheumatologist, an orthopedic oncologist, and a clinical oncologist, in a progressively anxious quest for answers regarding my pain. After a mass was identified and a biopsy conducted, I got that answer in the form of a cancer diagnosis. What followed was terrifying, and later became profoundly inspiring.
After my diagnosis I experienced, as many do, physical and emotional limitations that made it considerably more difficult for me to do many of the things that a parent of two teenage boys finds themselves doing without any thought. I consider myself a very independent person, not inclined to sit by and accept help from others. While there was plenty to worry about during that time, and although I returned to a normal routine in only a few months, I found the biggest challenge to be my sudden role change from “the helper” to “the helped”, and letting people do things for me. I quickly learned that I had an amazing support network in place, and that several resources were available to help me through my day-to-day life.
My husband started working from home, and took over all of the household tasks that were previously my domain, such as laundry, transporting the boys, helping with homework, you name it. The kids stepped up as well, managing household tasks independently and really ensuring that the home was always a positive environment for me. Several friends pitched in to handle a variety of tasks, including the creation of an email list to keep other friends and family members updated about my status. My oncology nurse spent a lot of time on the phone with me, going above and beyond to discuss treatment options, side effects and insurance. I had been hearing for years about the wonderful non-profit group, LUNGevity, through a friend connected with the organization, and came to learn much more as a patient. Through LUNGevity, I was introduced to a lung cancer survivor who spent many hours getting me up to speed on the terminology and sharing her experience. I have become active in the group as well, in turn serving as a mentor to other lung cancer patients. Through all of these support mechanisms, the burden of lung cancer was not too much for me to face. Now, from the vantage point of someone living with lung cancer, I look back with humbling respect for those caregivers, while looking forward with the hope they’ve endowed.
Although the annual spirit of the holiday season for me now includes an anniversary of my diagnosis, it is also a perennial reminder of the fortune I discovered in the hearts of numerous individuals who offered me support during a time in need. I’d like to take the opportunity to celebrate the convergence of Lung Cancer Awareness Month and Thanksgiving to offer my everlasting gratitude to all those that helped me, and all those that help others. I encourage everyone to acknowledge the selfless contributions of individual caregivers and organizations such as LUNGevity alike, and, if you’re so able, offer a hand to another in need. To the unsung heroes of the healthcare system, I thank you. You have not just guided me back to normalcy, you’ve inspired me and reshaped my perspective on life. Happy Thanksgiving!