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October Survivor Spotlight - Marlin Killen

  • October 25 2016

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    Marlin Killen is our featured survivor of the month for October.

    There I was, picking up yet another CT report. It had been 12 years since I had surgery for lung cancer.

    Everyone has a story, and mine went something like this: I had been in a minor car accident, and I had an MRI because my neck was not healing very well. I wasn’t surprised to see that my neck was, indeed, messed up, but as a non-smoker, I was shocked to find out I had a spot on my lung that turned out to be broncho-alveolar lung cancer. Within weeks, I had a lobectomy and started life after cancer.

    My doctors and I shared the joy and relief of a good outcome for the next 12 years.

    A lot of life happened during that time. My children graduated from elementary school, high school, and college. My husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. I participated in weddings and birthdays and graduations and celebrations of all types, as well as a few funerals and some sadness along the way. It was life! Wonderful, joyful, normal, healthy life!

    For me, early detection and treatment meant that I could eventually use the “c” word – “cure.” After the first five years, I wasn’t afraid to use it. But, that didn’t mean I could be lax about follow-up. I continued my routine doctor visits and check-ups. Twelve years of follow-up is a long time and a lot of doctor appointments. It’s a lot of CT scans. Every one was worth it, though, because follow-up saved my life a second time.

    Which brings me back to the beginning of this story…

    This spring, I had a routine CT scan before my regular follow-up appointment. Like appointments with all of the doctors on my team, the appointments with my pulmonologist had taken on a relaxed, happy quality. My doctors had all come to know me very well. They regularly told me I was the easiest appointment of the day, and often regarded me as an example of a good outcome for lung cancer treatment.

    I picked up the radiologist’s report days before my meeting with my pulmonologist so I would know in advance what we would be talking about. I noticed immediately that the report was not the expected short one – it was a two-pager. I knew from experience that two pages usually meant findings, but I also knew that findings on lung CT scans usually turn out to be unimportant. The report indicated that I had no significant change since my previous CT scan a year earlier, but there were significant changes when compared to my CT scan from two years prior. That meant further tests and follow-up were recommended.

    I went immediately to my pulmonologist’s office. As I approached the front desk, my doctor happened to pass by the doorway and I silently held up the report. He nodded his head in understanding. Ten minutes later, we looked at the scan together. There really wasn’t much of anything to see and it was probably nothing, but he ordered a PET scan. I took a copy of the PET film home with me, awaiting the doctor’s report.

    I didn’t see anything worrisome on the PET film. To my unprofessional eye, nothing stood out, and I anticipated yet another easy follow-up appointment. To my surprise, my pulmonologist showed me an ever-so-faintly pigmented pixel on the PET scan that corresponded to a tiny spot on the CT scan. This was not a recurrence – it was a new primary. The radiologist had made a brilliant diagnostic call!

    My pulmonologist was visibly upset at this turn of events, but grateful that we had been consistent with follow-up for all these years. Within minutes, my entire medical team was alerted to the findings and everyone jumped into action to save my life again.

    The spot was so tiny that surgery was the only appropriate treatment. My thoracic surgeon prepared me: if he could, he would do a wedge resection. If a wedge resection was not possible, he would be forced to do a pneumonectomy. He had saved my life once and I knew he could do it again. I had complete confidence that I would be well no matter what he had to do.

    As I awoke from surgery and took a deep breath, I was elated! I could tell that the surgeon had been able to do a wedge resection. He had gotten everything AND was able to spare the rest of my lung. When I opened my eyes, the nurses confirmed what I already knew. My surgeon came in smiling and told me that everything had gone perfectly. My pulmonologist was able to joke with me that I was good for another 12 years and many more years beyond that. The surgical residents all congratulated me on being cured of lung cancer for the second time. And yes, they ALL used the “C” word.

    “Cured of lung cancer for the second time.” That describes this new chapter of my life well!

    What does it take to be cured of cancer for the second time? It takes early detection, rapid and aggressive intervention by a dedicated team of cutting-edge professionals, and relentless permanent follow-up.

    There are many other things that are also important:

    • Doctors who work closely together as a team to share information, coordinate efforts, and brainstorm approaches to provide the best and most comprehensive care to their shared patients not only in the early stages of a crisis but also over time.
    • Patients need to communicate their wishes to the medical team. In my case, I let my team know that I want to live and that they should do whatever they had to do in order to save my life, and I promised them that I would be brave and let them.
    • Unceasing advocacy for your own health. Don’t slack off on appointments, treatments, or good health habits. Get all the information you need to make informed decisions, and don’t be reluctant to share any worries or concerns with your doctors.
    • Good medical insurance coverage. Do everything you can to get the best, most comprehensive coverage possible and maintain it – even if years go by when it seems unnecessary. In a crisis, good coverage makes it possible for all medical options to be considered, and minimizes worry about catastrophic medical expenses.
    • Gratitude for every day of life. It can be difficult to push aside the cloud of lung cancer to let the joy of life shine through. Do it anyway and just breathe.

    Of all the things that I have learned since my first diagnosis of lung cancer, there are two things that stand out to me and, I hope, to you:

    •  If you have been recently diagnosed, get treatment immediately. Don’t give cancer even one extra minute to grow or take a tighter grip on your health.
    •  If you’ve been in remission, remember this: follow-up is forever. Never stop. Early detection makes a cure more likely.

    We are the first generation of lung cancer patients to live five years or longer after diagnosis. The twists and turns in our health patterns after a lung cancer diagnosis frame and inform the way lung cancer patients are treated and the way they will be followed in the future. Our experiences contribute to the knowledge and understanding of how to identify, treat, and overcome this illness.

    Let’s all be cured of lung cancer the first time and, if needed, every time.



  1. Darcy White 10:11am, 10/25/2016

    Marlin, thank you so much for sharing your journey!!  Your story brought tears of joy and hope to my eyes.  I just completed treatment for a second lung cancer diagnosis. Not a recurrence.  A new diagnosis.  I feel so lucky to be writing this to you.  I was first diagnosed in 2009 - caused by radon - and had 2 lobes of my right lung removed followed by aggressive chemotherapy.  I survived 5 years and like you, was hesitant to use the ‘survivor’ or ‘cure’ word.  Around my 6 year cancerversary, I relaxed and used those words proudly.  And then they found a new cancer.  In the same place!!  This time it was daily radiation and chemo.  My last treatment was this past May.  I’m working full time - both jobs - and loving life.  Here’s to never stopping, staying hopeful, and being cured of lung cancer the first time and every time!!!

  2. Diane Newberry 10:23am, 10/25/2016

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are truly an inspiration.  I am an eight year survivor of Stage 4 lung cancer and I can’t agree with you more about early detection and follow up appointments. I wish you all the best for a bright and cancer-free next 12 years and beyond!

  3. Gerri Sopyla 03:07pm, 10/25/2016

    My dear 44 year old friend was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in April 2015. She has friends to help her with meals and her children’s activities as needed. What were some of the most meaningful ways people helped you while fighting your disease?
    She is surrounded with prayer and a most loving family and group of friends. Feel free to contact me privately.

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