April 26, 2016 | by City of Hope
But A.J. is no Pollyanna. A lung cancer survivor, he's endured the harshest of realities, and emerged a different person.
It all started with a strange sound.
An avid runner, the 50-year-old father of three was puzzled at first when his breathing developed a peculiar “hissing” sound. He also noticed he was clearing his throat constantly. A.J. saw a succession of doctors. X-rays detected a nodule in one lung but nobody could pinpoint the cause. Allergies? Hepatitis? Tuberculosis? Fungal infection? No one could say, and by now A.J. was coughing up blood.
After more than two years, a CT scan and lung biopsy provided the answer: Stage 4 lung cancer.
It destroyed me,” he recalls. “I was completely lost, panicked, crying. I couldn't think straight, and that's unusual for me. No one in my family had ever had cancer. How could this happen when I didn't even smoke?”
It can happen. About 40 percent of nonsmall cell lung cancer patients are diagnosed at Stage 4. A tobacco-free lifestyle guarantees nothing.
“Lung cancer is many different diseases with many variations,” says Karen Reckamp, M.D., M.S., co-director of City of Hope’s lung cancer program. “And 15 to 20 percent of lung cancer patients are nonsmokers.”
A support group pointed A.J. to City of Hope and Reckamp, who moved quickly, immediately ordering a brain scan. When it detected two tumors, A.J.'s remaining composure evaporated. He admits he even briefly contemplated suicide. “I just saw no way out,” he says.
But there was a way out.
As he began the long ordeal of chemotherapy plus brain surgery performed by Behnam Badie, M.D., director of the Brain Tumor Program at City of Hope, a potential lifeline emerged. A.J. tested positive for the ALK and ROS-1 genetic mutations, both of which have been shown to respond to the targeted therapy drug Xalkori.
After nearly two years on Xalkori, A.J.'s cancer has not advanced. He is slowly regaining his strength and has even returned to his favorite sport, taking part in the recent 5K “Dino Dash” to raise money for the Tustin Unified School District.
More important, A.J. has regained his emotional equilibrium. The future no longer terrifies him.
“The Xalkori is doing its job for the time being,” he says. “If it quits, we'll explore what else is available.”
A.J. says his illness has taught him to value and find the joy in every moment, to be more “present” for himself and his family, and to actively banish fear and despair.
In short, to live.
Now I focus on today, this minute, and I concentrate on doing the things that make me happy,” he said. “Because if you're too busy dying, you forget to live.”
He believes his decision to seek help at City of Hope was the right one.
“What a phenomenal place,” he says. “So well-organized, and such tender care. Everyone has a tremendous bedside manner. They take the time. They never rush. They walk you through everything. I always feel humbled and grateful to be there, especially when I speak with people in worse shape than I am.”
It's in those conversations with patients – and he's been having more of them – that A.J. feels he's found new purpose.
“My gift to others, is to help them build their own plan to live,” he says. “To share my knowledge with them, to take away their anxiety and despair, to comfort and inspire them, and also be an advocate for them.”
Learn more about City of Hope's Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program. If you are looking for a second opinion or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.