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I became a survivor in February 2003 when I was diagnosed with lung cancer.
It began with a nagging cough, a seasonal cough that I thought was an allergy. I went in for a routine x-ray, and I got a call saying there was a fist-size mass in my upper right lung. They couldn’t tell me for sure what it was, but obviously there was a good chance that it might be cancer. I got a CT scan that showed the same thing; it was probably some sort of cancer in my lung. I got a biopsy, and then was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer. From the scans, it looked like it was definitely large and invasive. I think a Stage 3, which is a pretty advanced stage lung cancer. At that point, they didn’t think they could operate on it. It was too large. It had spread too much in the chest cavity.
By far, I was pretty optimistic through the whole thing, even from the outset when things were pretty gloomy and doctors didn’t have a lot of positive things to say. I was determined to attack this thing and beat it. I talked a lot with my best friend from high school, who’s now a doctor, and first thing he said, “You have to get Lance Armstrong’s book and read his story. It’s an amazing book. It’s very inspirational. You’re in a similar situation: young, healthy guy with cancer.” I’ve never been a smoker. I always lived a pretty clean, healthy life. So getting this diagnosis was really a mystery. I was inspired and eager to tackle this thing, but this book really instilled it in me. This wasn’t something I was going to cower from. In reading about Lance, the way he did it, the way he aggressively pursued the best doctors and the best specialists from around the country; my wife and I took that approach.
A local oncologist recommended a cancer surgeon at U.C. San Francisco named Dr. David Jablons, who is world-renowned for his work in treating and surgically removing large invasive tumors like the one I had. I decided to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area for my treatment. I have a lot of family in the Bay Area. So I had a social network of friends and family that I knew would be really important as I went through the months of chemotherapy. Hopefully, if the chemotherapy went well, I could go and have surgery. I underwent four rounds of chemotherapy with the drugs Carboplatin, Taxol, and Gemzar. Things really couldn’t have gone any better than I think they had. My first scans after two rounds of chemotherapy showed a 50% reduction in the tumor in my chest. The doctors were just ecstatic. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They decided to go with two more rounds and then get me into surgery as fast as possible, because with lung cancer, time is of the essence. You don’t want this thing to metastasize. The best chance of recovery is removal. Once they get it to a size that they can remove it or remove the part of the lung that it’s in, the better odds you have of surviving. I went from having about a 10% chance of survival to a much greater chance of survival now.
They’d be taking out a pretty sizable chunk of my lung. I’d been a swimmer all my life, and lungs are important for that. I was hoping to come out of this with some sort of athletic life. I had a three-year-old son who I wanted to participate in sports. One of the things I really looked forward to in being a dad was watching my son grow and participate in a lot of activities with him. My big fear was that losing the upper lobe of my right lung would really impact my active lifestyle and that people would view me a little bit differently, as not being one of the healthy crowd, who could go out and do everything: go for hikes, go for a swim, run a 10-K, go skiing. My physicians prepared me for it. They said I would see some decreased function, but they predicted that I would have a healthy, active life post-surgery and post-chemotherapy.
I came out of a year of cancer diagnosis and cancer therapy, and in some sense, I felt like there was nothing I wouldn’t try. It wasn’t gonna kill me. The cancer didn’t kill me. I was ready to try a challenge that hopefully I could accomplish, prove to myself and to the people around me that I had beat this thing. So I signed up to do the Vancouver International Marathon in Canada. I trained for the marathon with a group of people from the Wellness Community. Some were cancer survivors. A lot of them had friends or relatives who had been diagnosed. It was a tight-knit group of people training for this incredible challenge. The training was tough. I was getting used to my new body, a body with about a third less lung capacity, and really pushing it to the limits with these 10, 15, 20-mile training runs. It was a really exciting, motivating and beautiful experience. I went to Vancouver and completed the marathon. I broke my 4:30 time goal, which isn’t fast. It was the goal that I set out to do. I ran it with some wonderful friends that I will be friends with for the rest of my life. I was able to overcome both my fears and the fact that I had some of my lung removed. Completing the marathon was a real post-cancer milestone for me.
A big part of my overcoming the cancer and beating the disease was being informed and not shying away from some of the difficult information that surrounds the cancer diagnosis and the cancer experience. I researched what was happening to my body, talked to my physicians, was an active participant in my treatment, in my chemotherapy, in my surgery. Every time I went and got a PET scan or a CT scan, I asked, “Can you burn me a CD-ROM of the results so I can put it in my file?” My ever-growing binder had every blood test and CT scan result. I carried that binder from appointment to appointment. I looked at it, researched it, tried to figure out what was going on, tried to figure out why the doctors were making these decisions, tried to stay on top of things. I saw a lot of terrible things happening to my body. But understanding why that was happening really helped me understand that I’d come out of it as well, that my body would recover. I think the information aspect of it and being active in my therapies was really important.
I don’t think I could have asked for a better support network of family and friends. I was lucky to live in an area that was close to my parents, brothers and sisters. I had a steady, loving relationship with my wife, Linda, and we really became a team. When I think of my cancer battle, I really think about our cancer battle. She went to pretty much every appointment with me. It was always Linda and Mike with the doctor. She took notes. She asked questions. I took notes. I asked questions. We were a real team. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like without her. At the same time, she had a hard time. It’s tough watching your loved one go through chemotherapy and watch their body deteriorate. It was hard for my parents and other relatives, but they were always there for me. The company I worked for was very supportive and basically said, “We’ll take you back when you’ve beat this thing. We know you’re gonna beat this thing. We’ll be there for you at the end of this as well.” That was very important to have the family support and have the support in the workplace.
Live strong means coming out of my year of cancer richer for the experience. I came out of this very motivated to reach milestones in my life and to reach those milestones on a continual basis. I ran the marathon. A month after running in the marathon, I climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. I’m in a graduate program at U.C. Berkeley. By doing that, I could prove to myself that I beat cancer. Beating cancer kept me alive, but it did nothing to leave something for others in the future. Beating cancer enables me now to go on and do, hopefully, some great and important things with my life: to help people, to set a good example for my son, set a good example for my friends and relatives, to make personal connections, to love and to help from age 35 to age 100, which I’m looking forward to reaching, cancer-free, healthy and happy. Live strong captures the spirit of a lot of cancer survivors.
I live strong by spending time with my family. I live strong by waking up every day, kissing my wife, kissing my son Griffin, and doing things with them, learning new things, making friends, staying in contact with a lot of the great people that I met during my cancer experience, many of them survivors. I live strong by living each day to its fullest and setting some interesting, exciting, and challenging goals to do next week, next month, next year, and hopefully, doing them with a lot of other people who share the lifestyle I’ve come to appreciate.
My name is Mike Wooldridge. I’m 36 years old, and I’m a one-and-a-half year lung cancer survivor.