By Natalie Brown, as told to Kendall Morgan
When I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at age 33, I had to make a lot of tough decisions quickly, including whether to freeze my eggs before treatment started or not be able to have kids. We decided to go ahead with treatment immediately. In the beginning of treatment, I felt awful. I was exhausted, and there was little I could do. It took time to come to terms with the diagnosis. How I feel mentally still changes day to day.
Overall, the emotional impact and experience hasn’t been what I expected in the beginning. I didn't expect treatment to go the way that it is going. It’s going surprisingly well for stage IV, so let’s start there. But I say emotionally, every treatment is completely different. Sometimes, I can go through treatment and it's like, “Hey, I have chemo.” Sometimes, it's like, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe I have lung cancer. I can’t believe I’m having to put poison in my body.”
I have to alter my life around treatment. I’ll do as much as I can before the medicine kicks in. I still work and it is very difficult to try and work and be on treatment at the same time. If I have treatment on a Monday, I’ll do all I can because by Wednesday or Thursday, I might not feel like walking up the steps.
Emotionally, it’s all over the place. It's like a rollercoaster. Sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down. It's a complex combination of emotions with treatment every 3 weeks. I know I’ll be down for a week, so I’ll hurry and stress. I’ll make sure all the clothes are washed. My husband helps, of course, but I want a clean house when I’m in treatment. I rush around, cooking, cleaning, or ordering food because I won’t feel like cooking. It’s a lot of anxiety to make sure things are perfect before treatment. If I don’t get it all done, then I’ll try and do it in the week of treatment and it makes me more fatigued. That’s when it gets frustrating.
Sometimes I just shut down. Two treatments ago, I cried and cried because I was so fatigued to the point where I couldn’t believe I was having to deal with this. I cried the whole week. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or get on social media. I went into a funk. It happens periodically. You’re just so tired. The fatigue weighs on you the most, no matter how much you sleep.
To help with the emotions, I found support through a mentoring program and online. I started seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. I thought at first I could handle this without professional help, but I couldn’t. Seeing a therapist has helped.
A lot of friends got me books. I tried reading them, but I’d read 20 pages and I just couldn’t do it. I started listening to podcasts and that’s better for me. Those seem to help. I listen to a lot of music, especially during treatment weeks. Slow, soft music seems to help a little bit. I take bubble baths, and I never did that before. Relaxing in a tub with candles. That helps a lot.
You have to give it time. I was not immediately able to talk about this the way I am now. I had to take the time to digest the fact of cancer and then I could share my story. Awareness is extremely important, especially in lung cancer.
Through it all, I find reasons to celebrate. I’m turning 35 this year. It’s another birthday, but it’s also another year celebrating that I’m still here. I celebrate everybody’s birthday. I celebrate scans. I had one a couple of weeks ago that was really good. I make sure to celebrate any little thing. Before cancer, I didn’t do that. I celebrated birthdays but not to the extreme. Now, that’s super important to me. It doesn’t have to be anything big. Any small situation, I make it celebratory. This experience has turned me into a more positive human. It sounds crazy. You’d think the opposite. But I’m so much more positive in life than before.
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Natalie Brown, Atlanta, GA, was diagnosed with stage IV lung adenocarcinoma, the most common form of non-small-cell lung cancer, in July 2020. She works full-time in software sales and serves as an advocate for lung cancer awareness.