Lung cancer survivor trains for marathon
"I think differently now. I always thought I had all the time in the world. Now, I know I'd better get moving."
Looking back, Jenny White thanks her lucky stars she was uncharacteristically determined to deep clean her bathroom that day.
"I don't really like to clean house," Jenny, now 53, said with a smile, "but it was past time to clean that bathroom."
Not realizing the danger, she mixed bleach and ammonia to clean---a hazardous combination even with the bathroom window open. And then Jenny started coughing.
Nearly a month later, she was still coughing, all the way to her doctor's office for a chest x-ray.
"My doctor and I both couldn't believe the depth of my cough," she said, "I was almost-throw-up-really-deep coughing. It was nearly constant."
After a chest x-ray showed no pneumonia but a nodule in the right upper lobe of her lung, her doctor sent her for a PET scan which turned out to be negative.
Since Jenny had no risk factors for lung cancer, the doctor decided to do a baseline CT and monitor it with subsequent CT scans.
Nine months later, the shadow had grown by 30 percent, and Jenny was referred to a cardiothoracic surgeon, who said there was a 50/50 chance the mass was malignant. He recommended immediate exploratory surgery.
Stunned, Jenny went back and sat for a while in the doctor's waiting room after the appointment. "I truly had not considered I could have cancer. I was a healthy person. I had never smoked. I was too young for this. I was in shock and total denial."
She went for a second opinion with pulmonologist Dr. Susan Garwood at Saint Thomas West who confirmed action was necessary.
Preparing for the surgery, Jenny's good nature reigned. Friends at work helped her name the right lobe nodule "Nigel" because of its "foreign" nature.
"After hearing how concerned I was about a major invasive operation, Dr. Garwood sent me to a cardiothoracic surgeon who performed video-assisted thoracic surgery (VAT)," Jenny said. Jenny had the surgery October 5 because she wasn't about to be sick at her long-awaited 49.99 birthday party November 7.
As family, friends and her husband Kent waited at Saint Thomas West, the word came down. The nodule was malignant, Stage1A adenocarcinoma and no lymph nodes were involved.
Jenny White is a funny, smart, active woman. She has never smoked. She eats well and she exercises. Lung cancer doesn't run in her family. She is a runner. In fact, she ran the 2010 Women's Half in Nashville, just 10 days before the VAT surgery.
"While I ran the half marathon that day, I was thinking about my lung, and I silently thanked it for all of its years of service," she said, smiling.
More seriously, she said: "God works in mysterious ways. I was even thanking Him for the fact that I had gassed myself that day in the bathroom. Without that happening, who knows how long the cancer would have grown undetected?"
Post-surgery, Jenny was immediately cancer-free. "I pursued going to an oncologist, just to be on the safe side," she said. "I ended up taking a prophylactic oral chemotherapy drug for six months because of the particular mutation of the tumor. But as I was told, my story is the 'Cinderella' of lung cancer stories."
Jenny White came through her experience with cancer a changed woman. "I now realize I am going to die someday. I started asking myself 'what am I doing with my life?' I think differently now. I always thought I had all the time in the world. Now, I know I'd better get moving."
Since that time, Jenny has gone to school on women and lung cancer. What she has learned has been shocking: More women will die of lung cancer than breast, cervical and ovarian cancers combined. More non-smokers will die of lung cancer than those with melanoma, brain and thyroid cancers combined. Most of those are women. A woman's five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 18% versus breast cancer at 89%.
So Jenny got involved. She founded the Tennessee chapter of the Lung Cancer Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working for more federally funded lung cancer research and dedicated solely to patient support and advocacy for people living with lung cancer or those at risk for the disease.
"There's no pink army for lung cancer like there is for breast cancer," she said. "So, I'm creating our own army."
"People assume if you have a lung cancer diagnosis that you smoke," she said, "and they stop listening. Lung cancer research is minimal and grossly underfunded. An overwhelming percentage of the time, people diagnosed with this disease either never smoked or they quit between 15 and 30 years ago."
Jenny is on her way to creating a lung cancer support community here in Nashville. This year makes the fourth year of Shine a Light on Lung Cancer, an evening of hope, support and compassion for those impacted by lung cancer, in November.
And Jenny wants to create a lung cancer support group in Nashville.
"I'm trying to make the best of a sucky situation," she said. "Through the challenges of my life, God has held me in the palm of his hand. Every day now I get up and ask 'What are the possibilities today?'"