By Dusty Donaldson
Being diagnosed with Stage IV inoperable non-small cell lung cancer certainly got Jean Heath’s attention. She was diagnosis during the winter of 2002. Being a quietly religious, positive person, she felt as if she had no choice but to rely on God for help. In February, after having bronchitis for most of the winter, Jean discussed the problem with her family doctor during her annual physical.
“I feel great, except for one thing,” she told her doctor. “I just can’t get rid of this terrible cough.”
After multiple follow-up visits and referrals, Jean heard the diagnosis: Stage IV, inoperable, non small cell lung cancer. Lung cancer had quickly taken Jean’s sister life in 1995. So she knew she was in for the fight of her life. At first, Jean and Ron, her husband of 50 years, kept the diagnosis to themselves. When they decided it was time to share the news, they told their two sons first.
“We started with our younger child Randal who is in the medical profession,” she says. “He vowed to stand beside us, behind us, between us whatever it took to get me through this terrible disease. And then we told our oldest son Michael. He is 6-feet-2-inches, 240 pounds of pure steel. Michael completely fell apart.”
Michael, who had testicular cancer during Lance Armstrong’s public battle with cancer, experienced several complications with his course of treatment. After his initial shock of his mother’s news, he said, “Mother, you’ll never make it. You’re entirely too little.”
That comment made Jean, who is barely 5-feet tall, determined to beat the disease. She began daily radiation treatments Monday through Friday, combined with weekly chemotherapy treatments on Wednesdays. And another weapon in Jean’s arsenal was prayer.
“I was on everybody’s prayer list…Moravians, Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses…I wanted prayers.
After 37 radiation treatments and several rounds of chemotherapy, Jean felt as if she was beating this disease.
“My doctor said, ‘Let’s take a scan and see how much your cancer has shrunk.’
But she was profoundly disappointed with the doctor’s report. After all that treatment, the tumor had not decreased—at all.
“It was exactly the same size as it was before,” Jean says. “My doctor, husband and I quietly cried together.”
Radiation therapy ended, but chemotherapy continued.
“When I found out the radiation was not working, I went back to my friends and family. Please, you have got to pray harder!’”
Treatment seemed to have no effect on Jean whatsoever. Not only did the treatment appear to be ineffective against the cancer, but even the typical side effects of radiation and chemotherapy did not affect Jean.
“I never lost my appetite. I never lost my energy. I was still able to clean the house every week…do all my washing and ironing, do all the cooking. Instead of being lethargic, I was actually hyper. I had all the energy in the world. My biggest problem was getting to sleep at night so I had to take sleeping pills.”
But during her 11th round of chemotherapy, Jean had a severe reaction—she could not breathe. By giving her oxygen, they were able to administer round 12 of chemotherapy. But when they tried to give her the 13th round, her body rejected it. Again Jean could not breathe.
“The doctor said, ‘No more. This is not working. We’re going to have to try something new.’”
The doctor wanted to get another CT scan of Jean’s lungs to have a baseline before starting new treatment.
“Again, I went back to my friends and family and said, Pray, pray, pray. I need your prayers.”
When Jean and Ron went back to the oncologist to find out the results of her scan and to learn about the new chemo, the doctor told Jean: “Your cancer is gone.”
“I said, ‘What do you mean gone?’”
“She said, ‘It’s gone.’”
“I said, ‘What about the big tumor here in my right lung?’”
“She said, ‘It’s gone.’”
“What about the cancer on my lymph nodes here in the middle of my chest?”
“She said. ‘It’s gone.’”
“How about my esophagus?”
“She said. ‘It’s gone.’”
Then her husband said, “Jean, she’s trying to tell you your cancer is gone.”
“After nothing but bad news, I had the best news anybody could ever ask to have. My cancer was gone and my prayers had been answered.”
Soon after her doctor informed her that her cancer was gone, Jean joined a local lung cancer support group. Then she started volunteering to help others going through the ordeal that she endured. Since then, she has called upon family and friends at times when she had a “false scare.” But she remains cancer free.
“I do know that good doctors, good nurses, good medicine, the support of a good family and good friends are what have gotten me to this point.” Jeans says. “When people ask me how long have you been in remission. I say, ‘I am not in remission. I am cured. I am cancer free and have been for 10 years.’”
Jean says that cancer certainly changed her life. She no longer lets small things bother her. Volunteering in the chemotherapy room at Forsyth Regional Medical Center is now the highlight of her week. She focuses on family, friends, volunteering, keeping a positive attitude and thanking God for her life. Jean begins each day by expressing her thankfulness to God for her life.
“It has been what I consider a miracle,” she says. “I love every day and I am so happy to be alive. Telling my story to patients seems to make them hopeful and reminds me how thankful I am that God spared me. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” she adds with a laugh.