“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8
When Justin first met Kristy, he told her his last name was “Credible.” She soon learned he was joking, but as she grew to know and love the man who became her husband, the father of her child and her soul mate, she believed he was indeed “just incredible.” Justin and Kristy married in March 2003. Their lives were similar to most young married couples…filled with jobs, friends, family, activities and the challenges common to us all. In 2006, they were blessed with their son Jeffrey. Life was good. Then, just weeks before they celebrated Jeffrey’s second birthday, everything turned upside down. At the age of 28, Justin was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.
“It’s almost hard to image sometimes what our life was like before,” said Kristy Andrews during a telephone interview in October 2010. “I just wish we could go back to that in so many ways. I just wish it was that simple, but it’s not.”
Justin’s early symptoms were mostly pain that he described as a “crick in the neck.”
“It was one of those things where you think you slept wrong and your neck is a little stiff the next day,” said Justin. “It never went away. I would try to change pillows. Sleep with different pillows. I even tried sleeping on the couch, sleeping on the recliner, guest bedroom. It was just one of those things that didn’t get real bad real quick. It just slowly got a little worse every day.”
After dealing with neck discomfort for three or four months, Justin developed shoulder pain.
“Same thing,” he said. “It was one of those things, like maybe you slept wrong, like you slept with your arm up under your head all night. You wake up in the morning, it’s just real stiff. It slowly got a little worse. It felt like I pinched a nerve or something.”
Justin was physically active throughout this time. He did not have any noticeable shortness of breath or any other classic symptoms of lung cancer. He spent a lot of his free time at Kerr Lake.
“We’d shoot basketball or we’d play volleyball or badminton. I even tried wakeboarding a couple of times. But I fell one time and my neck turned further than my range of motion would let me. It caused so much pain I never did it again. But there was never any shortness of breath or anything to trigger anything ‘lung’ the whole time with the neck and shoulder.”
Justin visited the doctor and a chiropractor and had X-rays of his spine. Everything seemed fine. The doctor suggested physical therapy. Before starting physical therapy, Justin requested an MRI to rule out a bulged disc. The MRI showed a mass. They were referred to Duke for additional tests.
“You hear the word cancer and in many ways it seems very unreal,” said Kristy. “It feels like you’re just living in a dream, just hoping you’ll wake up. Everybody thought it was just a benign mass and it was just causing some pain. And when they had done a scan of his body, there were just so many tumors they just lit up everywhere. It was extremely, extremely advanced.”
The cancer had spread from his lungs to his neck, bones and liver.
“The whole floor just dropped out from under me,” said Justin of his reaction when told it was cancer. “Over a three-day time span, we did a brain CT—we’d already done a brain MRI—another neck MRI, chest CT, abdomen CT and a full-body bone scan.”
Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer. It claims more lives than breast, colon, prostate, liver, kidney and melanoma cancers combined. Yet for someone as young as Justin, lung cancer is extremely rare. According to the National Cancer Institute, less than one tenth of one percent of Americans die of lung cancer between ages 20 and 34.
“When you hear lung cancer, of course, the first thing you think about is smoking,” said Kristy. “Justin was a smoker. He smoked for 14 years and had just quit. He laid them down on his 28th birthday and said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to change my life for the better. I made a stupid decision when I was a kid and I got addicted but that’s it.’
“It was one of the first things we asked,” she said. “The doctors told him, ‘Do we think it caused it? No. Do we think it helped the situation? No….There are people who smoke so much more, so much longer than you and they never get lung cancer. And there are people who never smoke and will get lung cancer.’ Basically, they said it was more of a combination. It does run in his family, so he does have family history of it.”
Justin’s prognosis was bleak. Survival rates for Stage IV lung cancer are less than 5 percent. Unfortunately, the majority of diagnoses—56 percent—are late stage before the disease is discovered.
“When they said ‘cancer,’ I knew it was bad. Because I knew it was everywhere. All I knew was that people die from cancer. I didn’t know what chances he had. I didn’t know anything about this cancer.” Kristy began researching the facts about lung cancer on the internet, but found little comfort. “Because all I read was horror stories… I’m reading that with a Stage IV diagnosis…he basically has a 5 percent chance that he’s going to be here in five years. After I got past the shock of it, we both started the mission of—I don’t know how—but we want to be part of that 5 percent.”
The diagnosis drew Kristy closer to God. She realized she needed the Lord as never before.
“I think there are two kinds of people who go through this,” said Kristy. “People who kind of turn their back on God and people who find God. I had one person to turn to…one faith. That’s all I can do. I have to believe that somehow this is supposed to be for good. And I did really trust that.
“But the beginning of it was extremely, extremely difficult. I looked at this little boy who was not even two yet. And I thought: He may not ever know his father. It’s just heart wrenching. But then I thought of all the people who lose their husbands, and children who lose their parents so quickly—whether it’s a car accident, plane wreck, gunshot or whatever it is—and they never get a chance to say goodbye. It’s just so quick. You know, we’ve been given a chance. He’s still here. He’s still with me and he’s still with Jeffrey. So when people came up to me and they told me, ‘Oh, my God! Oh my God! This is your worst nightmare!’ I looked right back at them and I said, ‘No, it’s not. Because my worst nightmare would be that he’s taken away from us. And he’s still here. And we still have a chance to win this thing. I don’t know how. But I trust we’re going to win it.’ That was how I felt about it.”
She explained how she came to put her faith in God and how that became a central focus in their battle with lung cancer. When the lung cancer diagnosis rocked her world, Kristy needed divine intervention.
“I always believed in God,” said Kristy, “but I never needed Him. I never had a situation in my life that I couldn’t handle.” But the scary roller coaster ride of lung cancer had their hopes up and down.
“Treatment worked. Then it would stop working. Then the other treatment didn’t work. We got to the point where the doctor told us that Justin’s liver was extremely compromised.”
They were running out of treatment options. Kristy did the only thing she knew to do. Pray.
“I told Justin, ‘I really don’t know how, but I trust you’re going to get a miracle. And I trust that God is going to use you for a bigger purpose.’ So I asked Justin to start praying with us every night. It was really uncomfortable at first for all of us to pray together but we did. And it was at that moment, I trust, that Justin truly believed and truly found God and understood that we can’t do this alone. We have to lean on Him. We have to find Him.”
Soon after Kristy, Justin and Jeffrey started praying together as a family, Justin’s treatment began working. “Within six weeks of starting that new treatment pretty much everything had disappeared,” said Kristy. “He was in remission just six short months later.”
“I’ve done so much soul seeking, where I’ve tried to figure out why and I’ve tried to find our purpose. I think when you go through this you almost kind of find your purpose. And if you really trust that you’re almost like chosen—and it’s not for a bad thing, it’s for a good thing—that if you’re chosen to go through this for a good thing to help other people. It just kept coming back to me through different signs…that we’re supposed to help other people and educate them on the dangers of smoking so young. That’s really what kept coming back to me over and over again.”
After his diagnosis, Kristy and Justin became strong lung cancer advocates. They raised money for lung cancer research and raise awareness about the misconceptions surrounding the disease.
“Right after Justin was diagnosed, we found out there was a walk pretty much right in our back yard,” said Kristy. It was the first Lungevity lung cancer event in the Raleigh, NC area. “We found out about it and said, ‘We’re not going to just sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. We’re going to do something really good.’ We said, ‘We need to show Justin how much we love him and how much we support him in all this.’ So within four weeks we’d raised $8,500 and we had over 70 people who had attended that walk for Justin as part of what was then born as Justin’s Fight Club.” Since then, they’ve supported several lung cancer events, including Free to Breathe in Greensboro and Raleigh. “It’s all for the same great cause,” she said.
Justin said the one thing he would like everyone who has not been personally touched by lung cancer to understand is that nobody deserves lung cancer.
“The biggest thing is…the stigma. Personally, I did smoke. But there are a lot of people, unfortunately, who say, ‘Oh, you smoked. You got lung cancer. You had it coming.’ That doesn’t mean I deserve this. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to find a cure for this as much as we are for breast cancer.”
The anti-smoking organization Tobacco Reality Unfiltered (TRU) produced public service announcements featuring Justin and Kristy’s story. When TRU first interviewed Justin, Kristy told him, “They’re coming back here because nobody has a story like yours. You have this story that is going to speak to so many people—especially kids. You were quarterback of the football team in high school. You were a star basketball player. You dated all the cheerleaders. You are that guy that everybody wanted to be. And now look at you. Now look at what you’re going through. Some of it partly could be about the choices that you made. And that’s what speaks to kids. So we’re really excited to be a part of it.”
Kristy believed for the best, yet accepts God’s plan for her and Justin’s life—no matter how difficult it is. And even when circumstances changed, they continued to trust in the Lord.
“We’re just servants here on Earth,” said Kristy. “It’s not a choice that I would have wanted if I was asked, but I didn’t have a choice. We were chosen to do something really, really good. How many people can say they were chosen in this life to save lives? And we can honestly say that.”
Kristy advises people going through this battle not to withdraw from others. Throughout the ordeal, Kristy shared her feelings, her faith and her fears through a Caring Bridge blog.
“The thing that I tell people is, you know, people really want to help you. Just try so hard not to be one of those people who shrivels up into your own little shell. I know it’s hard because sometimes you just don’t want people to talk to you. Allow them to help you. And try to find your purpose. I truly, truly believe, that especially the young people who are diagnosed with this, it really is for a reason. If you try to find a purpose and you try to find something good that you can do with this, whether it’s helping others learning about the disease from research and helping to spread that. I know many people do that. Or in our case, in our specific case, we didn’t know anybody else in their 20s who had been diagnosed with this and was a smoker—nobody else. Everybody we knew who had been diagnosed with this, they were nonsmokers. So in our eyes, it was like, this is our chance. Because this (smoking) could have had everything to do with it, could have had nothing. But this is what we are supposed to do with it. We’re supposed to educate children. And we’re supposed to save lives and get people to stop smoking. That’s our purpose. That’s the soul seeking that I personally did.
“But I think really the biggest thing, is you have to be positive. No matter what it is…I don’t care if you’re taking a test…I don’t care if you’re running a race. No matter what it is, if you don’t think you can win and you don’t think you’re going to be able to do what you set out to do, then you’re not going to do it. So we live every day—in our heart—trusting and believing that 20, 30 years from now Justin is still going to be here. He’s going to see Jeffrey grow up. He’s going to grow old with me. Some days are harder to believe it than others when he’s not doing so well. But I do believe and I thank God every day for Justin’s perfect health. And people think we’re crazy. They’re like ‘Why would you thank Him for his perfect health?’ It’s because that’s how much I trust. I trust that it’s already been done. And I have that much gratitude for it. So that’s kind of how we go through it and how it helps in moving forward. I’ve talked to a lot of young mothers, as well. I’ve helped them to have that same mindset of quit focusing on the sickness. Don’t focus on the sickness. Focus on the future. Focus on what you want. Odds can be beaten. Every incurable disease has been cured at some time or another. So who is to say that your loved one can’t be that person?“
-- by Dusty Donaldson
--images courtesy of Kristy Andrews
Editor’s Note: Justin lived more than two years after his lung cancer diagnosis. He passed away peacefully the day before Thanksgiving, November 24, 2010, after developing pneumonia and other complications. His PSAs are inspiring and touching the lives of young people. Kristy remains dedicated to helping save lives by sharing their experiences with other young people.