Conquering a late-stage cancer diagnosis
It started with a cough that just wouldn’t quit.
Vickie Duff tried taking allergy medicines, but the cough that started in the summer lingered into fall.
As a breast cancer survivor, Duff, 58, had regularly scheduled follow-up appointments with her oncologist. At one of these appointments she had a coughing fit, and her oncologist listened to her lungs. He then immediately recommended a chest X-ray.
“I knew in the back of my mind that it was probably something more than a cough,” Duff said. “When we met with the doctor to discuss the X-ray results, the first thing he said was ‘I’m so glad you brought your husband with you today.’ That’s when I knew it was bad.”
The X-ray confirmed Duff’s worst fears – she had stage III lung cancer.
Dealing with her diagnosis
Lung cancer is the most common form of cancer worldwide, and Kentucky leads the nation in lung cancer incidence and mortality. Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke are among the top risk factors for the disease.
Although she had since quit, Duff had smoked earlier in life.
Her advanced stage IIIA diagnosis meant her tumor was large when it was discovered. Treatment for lung cancer usually includes surgery to remove the cancer followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation.
“I knew there were survivors out there who had lived long past that. I want to be one of them.”
– Vickie Duff
Survival rates for lung cancer are much lower than other common types of cancer. Less than 18 percent of people with lung cancer survive five years, and more than half of all people with the disease die within one year of diagnosis. When detected early, survival may be as high as 70 percent, but for patients with advanced disease like Duff’s, the outlook is more dire – only 4 to 20 percent of patients survive five years.
Facing those tough odds, Duff was determined to find a cancer surgeon in the Lexington area with whom she felt comfortable. Duff’s sister, who works at UK HealthCare, recommended Timothy Mullett, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the UK Markey Cancer Center who specializes in lung cancer treatment.
Compassionate care at UK
Mullett was straightforward, telling Duff her cancer was advanced and that treatment would be difficult. Still, he remained supportive as he recommended a care plan that included surgery to remove the cancer and chemotherapy afterward to kill any remaining cancer cells.
“Dr. Mullett was encouraging and positive,” Duff said. “We knew my condition was serious, but he was confident.”
In order to remove the cancer, Mullett had to take out Duff’s entire left lung.
Despite the intense procedure, Duff said she felt better as soon as she woke up. “I knew it was out of me,” she said. “I felt great.”
Treatment and recovery
Duff recovered in the hospital for four days. Her surgery happened in September, and her treatment plan called for six months of chemotherapy under the direction of Markey oncologist Susanne Arnold, MD, and her team.
Duff’s final chemotherapy session in February happened to fall on her birthday, so she turned the day into a party. Family, friends and members of her care team came together to celebrate.
“It was a wonderful feeling,” Duff said. “I couldn’t have felt more cared for.”
September 2016 marked six years since Duff’s surgery. She’s been cancer-free since her chemotherapy ended in 2011, giving her the time and health to enjoy the company of her five grandchildren and her husband of 35 years.
“The doctors, they told me the life expectancy for my cancer – it was five years or so,” Duff recalled. “But I knew there were survivors out there who had lived long past that. I want to be one of them.”