Lysa McAfee was no rookie when it came to dealing with health issues in her family.
“My son had a cardiac arrest when he was 14 and now has a defibrillator, and my husband had a significant head injury,” she notes.
But still nothing could have prepared her for the shock of being diagnosed with lung cancer this spring.
McAfee, 51, isn’t a smoker. She had been exposed to very little secondhand smoke during her life.
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“I was very healthy. I ate well my whole life. I worked out my whole life. Then out of the blue, it was like a light switch was flipped, and I was suddenly sick.”
Tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer, but people who don’t smoke may get lung cancer, too. American Cancer Society
In January, McAfee’s back started hurting after a snowmobiling outing. She thought she had pulled something in her back and went to her chiropractor for an adjustment.
When she didn’t get any relief after a couple of visits, her chiropractor took an X-ray that showed her back was in alignment. He suggested that her pain might not be structural in nature and advised her to see a doctor.
Since she always felt so healthy previously, McAfee didn’t have a primary care doctor. After finding one, the Meridian woman made her first visit on a Monday in March for a set of diagnostic X-rays. She told the doctor that she was leaving for a family vacation Thursday and would get the results when she got back.
Instead, the doctor called her back that same day after examining the scans. Her lungs were full of cancer.
McAfee still decided to take that trip to Disney World — three days after a cancer diagnosis. McAfee and her husband, Ken, had given the trip to their son and his girlfriend as a Christmas gift. They decided to keep McAfee’s diagnosis under wraps for a time.
Touring through the amusement park proved difficult for McAfee. The cancer had already metastasized and had spread to her spine and pelvis.
The last two days of the vacation, Ken pushed her in a wheelchair.
McAfee laughs at the memory. “I should have got the wheelchair on the first day. It was really nice. We got to go up to the front of the lines!”
Lung cancer is common
Many nonsmokers, like McAfee, assume they are safe from contracting lung cancer. But lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death every year in the United States — more than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined.
After accounting for those whose lung cancers are attributed to smoking, approximately 10 percent of lung cancer comes from radon exposure, another 9 to 15 percent from occupational exposures to carcinogens and a final 1 to 2 percent from air pollution.
After researching her cancer, McAfee believes she may have been exposed to radon — a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is tasteless, colorless and odorless — at some point in her life.
“Radon spores can last in your lungs for over 40 years. It is kind of like asbestos, it ... just lays around. In some people, it may take off, and in others it doesn’t. It could have been from a house I lived in when I was little, or maybe I was exposed at some other time,” McAfee says.
While McAfee’s doctor says the cancer is “unexplainable” and that radon exposure at some point in her life could have been the culprit, there is no testing available to confirm what caused McAfee’s cancer.
As soon as McAfee returned from her family vacation in Florida, she underwent more tests to determine exactly what kind of cancer it was and where it had spread. Her official diagnosis was non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Besides being in her lungs and bones, the cancer had also metastasized to her lymph nodes, brain and liver. Doctors immediately started treatment with 10 rounds of radiation to McAfee’s brain.
“They had to do full brain radiation as there were so many little dots. It wasn’t like there was one tumor or one spot they could go after. It was the same with my liver and lungs.”
Once the radiation was complete, she moved on to chemotherapy. The good news was that her blood tests indicated that her cancer was a match for an oral chemotherapy drug called Tarceva that is an effective treatment for NSCLC. She started the drug in April, and new scans saw her cancer shrink by 80 percent. This worked until July.
“I could tell it wasn’t working anymore. I was back on pain medication. I told my doctor, and he did more blood tests that showed my counts were changing. I learned that it is usual for people who are younger and healthier — that their body will build up proteins to fight against the chemo — my body had done that. In late August they started me on a second drug, Torisel, and within eight pills I could tell it was working, and I was able to ease off the pain medication.”
While grateful for the reprieve, McAfee says she is “chemoed-out.” Every day, it’s an effort to get up, move, shower and move forward with her life.
If this new medicine stops working, she will likely opt next for more traditional intravenous chemotherapy treatment. And McAfee knows that the chemotherapy can extend her life but that it will not cure her cancer.
“I don’t rely on the chemo and the medicine to get rid of my cancer. If that happens, it will be because of God and prayer.”
Keeping it together
It was in 2003 when the first medical trauma hit McAfee’s family. Her husband was working on his dirt bike in their garage. While the family always wore helmets when riding recreational vehicles, Ken wasn’t wearing his helmet when he was testing the motorcycle in front of their home.
The bike hit something. Ken went down, landing on his head.
Neurosurgeons had to perform surgery to relieve the growing pressure on his brain. The brain injury affected Ken’s speech and motor skills. While the medical staff expected him to need at least three months of recovery and rehab, he returned home after three weeks.
McAfee’s family faced mortality a second time in 2008. Her 14-year-old son, Justin, collapsed rounding third base at a Cole Valley baseball team practice.
Justin experienced cardiac arrest caused by a faulty heart valve. Thankfully, Jessica Moncrieff, also 14, was playing soccer on a nearby field and responded to the yells for help. Having taken CPR for a babysitting class, she began chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth breathing on Justin until the paramedics arrived with a defibrillator, saving his life.
Dealing with her husband’s injury and with her son’s heart condition did help prepare McAfee for her own health battle. “I’ve always been positive. I’ve always been strong. But walking through those adversities helped me to trust God even when it isn’t easy.”
McAfee recites her motto multiple times, “You have to accept what is and move on.”
“I have cancer. I can’t wave a magic wand and get rid of it. I don’t want to waste time by dwelling on that and thinking about it all the time. I also can’t ignore it. The reality is I’ll have to mess with this the rest of my life. So instead I think about what can I do to move forward. Sometimes this includes researching my disease and treatment options. Sometimes it is talking with others who are going through difficulties. I ask myself, ‘Whose life can I make a difference in?’
“Most of the questions I have won’t be answered on this side of eternity, at least not with my human mind. But even without the answers to why I’m going through this, I get glimpses of the difference I can make by the way I walk this out. I wouldn’t have picked this. It isn’t easy. It is a conscious choice not to get into the ‘woe is me’ negative mindset.
“I have bad days. I cry. I’m not Wonder Woman. But I catch myself from letting negativity go on and on — and then I move forward.”
Listen to an interview with Chad Estes, the author of this article, and Idaho Statesman features editor Holly Anderson on Jamie Talan’s weekly radio show, Health Stories Matter, at 1 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24, on Family Inspirational Radio — 790 am.
Estes is a Boise photographer and writer who is an active cancer advocate. His project, “The Reveal Mission,” showcases stories of breast cancer survivors and fighters.
Online resources about lung cancer
Lung cancer fact sheet from American Lung Association: lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/lung-cancer.
Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer from American Cancer Society: cancer.org/cancer/lungcancer-non-smallcell/index
More about Radon
Radon is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, according to EPA estimates. Overall, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is responsible for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year. About 2,900 of these deaths occur among people who have never smoked.
Radon gas is a naturally occurring odorless gas, and high levels of radon may be found in or around some houses or buildings.
Knowing the facts of radon in an indoor environment from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (including how to order a radon test kit): healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/Health/EnvironmentalHealth/IndoorEnvironment/Radon/tabid/939/Default.aspx
Radon levels for Idaho: id-radon.info.