The key to dealing with lung cancer? A strong support system

Cathie Sundstrom with husband Wayne and best friend Gail

Cathie was diagnosed less than a year ago with advanced lung cancer and has been going through aggressive treatment ever since. At this point, her cancer is under control, she is feeling better, and making the most of every day – surrounded by a loving network of family and friends.  An ex-smoker, and anti-smoking advocate, Cathie is also making time to encourage greater enforcement of no smoking bylaws at her local hospital.

How did you find out you had lung cancer?

I thought I’d pulled a muscle in the lower part of my shoulder and taking a lot of muscle relaxants so I went to see my doctor. He sent me to a physiotherapist but after a month nothing changed.  I was eating muscle relaxers like crazy, so I went back to my doctor and he sent me to get an X-ray.

In my X-ray they saw a mass. I was in shock and it was hard waiting to hear from my doctor about whether or not the mass was cancerous. It took three days for him to get back the results.

Once my doctor had the results things moved fast. I had a cat scan done within two weeks. The tumor was pushing on my lung and pressing on a nerve. That's why I was in so much discomfort.  To get my pain under control they had to admit me to the hospital. I was there for 10 days.

At the hospital a doctor came to explain I had non-small cell lung cancer. I remember a lady was visiting her husband who was staying in the hospital bed across from me. She overheard and she was so kind. She came over and hugged me, and stayed with me until my husband arrived. I never got to thank her.   

I was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer mid-February 2016 and started treatment the first week of March. My head was reeling. 

The last time I was a patient at Surrey Memorial Hospital I gave birth to my daughter, 39 years ago. But in the past year I’ve been to the hospital for treatment for weeks on end, every day.

Did you go through chemotherapy?

I started chemotherapy about 10 days after they got my pain under control and released me from the hospital.  They put me on a high dose treatment which was hard.  I was constantly nauseous and couldn’t get any relief. Finally, once my four rounds of chemotherapy were finished, I was able to eat again. But I couldn't stand the smell or taste of coffee for months. And I couldn’t concentrate on reading which was also hard. I love to read. 

Then after a short break from treatment, they did a special CT scan to map out if I was a candidate for high dose radiation. I was, and they recommended I get high dose radiation every day for six weeks and a different chemotherapy treatments once a week for six weeks.

For my nausea, the only thing that worked was peppermint lifesavers. And one of the few things I could eat was Boost, the meal replacement. I found if you put it in the freezer for 40 minutes, it tastes almost like a milkshake!

What was the hardest thing about chemotherapy?

I have six grandkids. One daughter lives close by and has two kids. The other four others live out of town. With so many colds and flu it wasn't safe for my daughter or the two grandkids living close by to visit when my immune system was down.  I could of course communicate using Facetime with all of them, and we did, but that too was hard; knowing how sick I am and seeing I was suffering.

Are you undergoing any treatment at this time?

I finished my chemotherapy and radiation last August. Unfortunately, they can’t operate as it wouldn’t be safe. The root of my cancer is encased around my pulmonary artery.

The good news is the primary tumor has shrunk a lot. I’ll get another X-ray in three months and another cat scan in six months.  They say the future likelihood of the lung cancer spreading is high, but for now I’m okay, if weaker. I have to use a walker because I can't walk long distances without getting tired. 

Do you have a support system?

I do have a huge support system of family and friends. My biggest supports have been my husband Wayne and daughter Dawn. My husband even took a leave from work to care for me.  

My best friend Gail came over daily to help care for me. And another friend texted me every day and drove down from 108 Mile Ranch every couple of weeks to see me.

Others would call. In fact, the phone was ringing so much, my husband asked people to call his cell so if I was sleeping the house phone ringing wouldn't wake me.  He never talked so much on the phone in his life!  To help keep people informed on how I was doing, we set up a system where my husband would call a few people, who then would call others.

I do feel lucky to have so many wonderful friends and family. Generally I am the one helping others, but when I needed support they didn’t hesitate, and I am ever grateful for it.

At this point I’m doing better, and my husband has gone back to work. I always knew I loved him, but I didn’t realize the depth of love I have for this man. You can really tell the measure of a person when you go through something like this.

Do you think smoking had something to do with your cancer?

Yes I smoked a pack a day for 45 years. But until now, there’s been no history of cancer in my family.  I certainly encourage people who smoke to quit, and people who don’t never to start.

Do you feel the BC health system is supporting you? What could be improved?

I can’t say enough good things about the BC Cancer Agency. The doctors have been great and the staff deserve gold medals. They all make me feel very cared for.

There is one thing however I think needs addressed. And I’m not the only one frustrated about it. It was a common subject of conversation amongst those of us undergoing cancer treatment at Surrey Memorial Hospital. We complained, but so far nothing has been done.

It’s that there are ‘No Smoking’ signs everywhere on the property and near building entrances, but no one is enforcing the rule.  When I was coming and going from daily treatment people were always outside the front entrance of hospital and the cafeteria smoking. I couldn’t avoid them. The main hospital entrance is right in front of the chemo room.  I would ask the security guards to remind people smoking was prohibited, but they said it was not their job.  And, if I said anything to the people smoking myself, they would just swear at me.  I’m a former smoker, and I would never disrespect anyone like that.  I was fighting for my life and felt vulnerable.

The other thing is that cancer patients don’t get a break on parking fees when undergoing chemotherapy treatment, but do get a break when undergoing radiation. This seems unfair. And some people, especially seniors, struggle to afford parking.  

Do you have any advice for others battling lung cancer?

I learned a lot by talking to others going through cancer during chemo. Different things work for different people.  Don't go it alone if you can help it. You need that support. There are no silly questions. And write everything down because believe me there is a thing actually called ‘chemo brain’!

I also learned a sad thing. That friends can disappear when they learn you’re seriously ill. I wanted to cry hearing that.  I understand people feel awkward and don't know what to say but the fact is they don’t have to say anything. Just be there.

Finally, a quick tip about managing all your medical appointments. Lifelabs allows you to make appointments online now, so you easily go get a blood test done the day before your chemo. Booking ahead makes it so much easier. You can walk in and out of the lab in 10 minutes tops.

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Page Last Updated: 27/01/2017