'My cancer diagnosis: What I wish I'd known' – Vicky Graham (w/VIDEO)

November 1, 2013 | by Nicole White

Vicky Graham doesn’t fit the profile of what most people think of as a lung cancer patient.

Vicky Graham, a 56-year-old lung cancer survivor, shares what she learned. Vicky Graham, a 56-year-old lung cancer survivor, shares what she learned. (Photo courtesy of Vicky Graham.)

Healthy and active, 56-year-old Graham thought that the swelling in her collar-bone area was nothing more than a lingering infection from a recent sore throat. But when her doctor checked it out, she learned that her lymph node was enlarged. This touched off a series of tests and, ultimately, a diagnosis of lung cancer.

Graham hadn’t touched a cigarette in more than three decades. Even when she was smoking, she never smoked more than a half a pack a day – and she quit for as long as a year at a time before she gave up cigarettes for good 33 years ago.

“My lungs were very, very clear, and look like I never had any history of smoking whatsoever,” Graham said. “My perception of lung cancer changed with my own diagnosis. I became aware that you can develop lung cancer without ever having smoked before.”

In fact, about 15 percent of lung cancer cases occur in people who've  never smoked.

Graham was treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation at City of Hope – and is recovering well.

She received extra support through a nursing research program focused on lung cancer patients. That program provides patients with additional support through palliative care – that is, care designed to focus on quality of life in addition to a patient’s tumor.

“I felt such a genuine concern from everybody here,” she said. “That’s something you normally don’t think about when coming to a hospital for cancer: They take care of every aspect of you.”

We recently asked Graham to look back at the time of her diagnosis and ask herself, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What wisdom, soothing words or practical tips would you give your newly diagnosed self?

Her responses:

Don’t consult Dr. Google. Graham said she learned not to spend too much time investigating her disease online. “You can scare yourself to death,” she said. “Your diagnosis doesn’t mean you have a death sentence. You just have to do the best that you can in your fight.”

Take care of your body now. Don’t wait to be seriously ill to take care of your body. Because Graham was healthy aside from her cancer, she was able to undergo chemotherapy and radiation therapy concurrently, cutting down her treatment time. She said her good health prior to having cancer made her fight a little easier than it might have been. She also learned to take good care of herself during treatment and after treatment. Graham has cut out processed foods, and says she’s much more aware of fueling herself with more nutrient-dense foods.

Find comfort in your faith. Graham and her family relied on their faith in God to see them through her diagnosis and treatment, and she said she was happy to have her church community for support. She made friends at City of Hope during her treatment, including several who did not already have ties to a religious community, and found additional support and help through City of Hope’s chaplaincy services.

Accept help. Not only for your own sake, but for your family’s, Graham said. “They need to be involved – and let them be,” she said. “I learned that’s their way of coping. They need to have a role, and it’s a very important role.”

Don’t assume you are not at risk of cancer. If you are eligible for lung cancer screening or other screening, get it. Even if you are not eligible for screening – Graham wasn’t – do what you can to minimize your cancer risk.

Graham shares her experience with the palliative care program for lung cancer patients in the video below.

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