Genetics Likely Caused My Small Cell Lung Cancer

I am more serene now than I was before my diagnosis and have less anxiety about death. Removing the fear of death has made more room for me to live.

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Rebecca Glommen

Rebecca Glommen

When I was diagnosed with lung cancer, in 2007, I asked the physician not to tell me the type, stage, or prognosis. I was about to start nursing school and was aware enough about the disease to know that not many people survived. I’ve since discovered that I had stage 3B small cell lung cancer, which carried a 5-year survival rate of about 7%, so I’m glad I made the decision not to know the extent of the disease. Having that information would have made me concentrate on dying, and I knew I would have to concentrate on living to survive.

Despite the late stage of the cancer, I had no symptoms or known risk factors to warn me I was facing serious illness. I went to the gym 5 days a week, was a lifelong nonsmoker, and led a healthy lifestyle. What led me to the diagnosis was completely unrelated to my condition.

Atypical Road to Diagnosis

I was sitting at my kitchen table studying when suddenly, the left side of my face went numb. Worried I was having a stroke, I called an ambulance and was at the hospital within minutes. An x-ray showed I had a pinched nerve in my neck, which caused the numbness in my face. I was prescribed a muscle relaxant, and within a couple of weeks, I was feeling fine and put the incident behind me.

I was still feeling in the best of health when 6 months later, I got a call from the hospital telling me that upon additional review of my earlier x-ray, there appeared to be a mass on my left lung that had been missed, which could either be an infection or perhaps a contusion on my rib cage, said the nurse. In any case, she advised me to come to the hospital for a low-dose computed tomography scan to get a more precise image of the mass. I hadn’t felt sick, so an infection seemed unlikely, and hadn’t done anything to injure my ribs, which left open the possibility that I was facing a serious illness.

Several days after the imaging scan, I got the call that everyone dreads. The radiologist said the mass was most likely cancer and I would need a tissue biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. The next few days happened in a blur. I met with a surgeon who said the size of the mass warranted removal of my left lung. However, to know whether the cancer had spread outside the lung, before he removed my lung, he would take a small piece of bone out of the mediastinum above my left breast and have it biopsied. If it showed malignancy, he warned, he would stop the surgery because the cancer would be too advanced for surgical excision, and my chance of surviving more than a few months was poor.

Preparing to Die

Fortunately, the cancer had not spread to my bones. However, 2 of the 20 lymph nodes that were removed tested positive for cancer. I was prescribed six rounds of cisplatin, but after the first treatment, I was so sick, that I told my oncologist I would rather die than continue the therapy. He agreed to stop the drug because, he said, the chemotherapy would only decrease my odds of a cancer recurrence by 5%. He offered me radiation therapy, but again, I refused, worried I would suffer damage to my heart. I have a strong faith and reasoned that if it were my time to die, no amount of cancer therapy was going to prevent it.

Since the surgery, subsequent positron-emission tomography scans have shown no evidence of disease. I’ve been in remission for 16 years.

Facing Life’s Challenges

My pulmonologist said that because of my nonsmoking history, it is likely there is a genetic component to my developing small cell lung cancer, but I’ll never know for sure whether genetics played a role in this cancer. I was adopted at birth, and although I have subsequently met my birth mother, I do not know who my birth father is, so it is impossible to obtain a complete medical family history. In any case, the reason I developed this cancer is not important to me. I’m just grateful I’ve survived.

Following the lung cancer surgery, I needed several months of physical therapy to regain enough breathing capacity to be able to speak and resume exercising without gasping for air. During my convalescence, I was determined to finish nursing school and have been fortunate to have had a long career in medicine, before the COVID-19 pandemic ended my ability to continue working.

It is not lost on me that I have been given a second chance at life, and I have not wasted this opportunity. Soon after my diagnosis and recovery, I reached out to the American Lung Association ( for support and have since become an American Lung Association mentor angel to help other patients diagnosed with lung cancer and their caregivers.

I have also become a fierce advocate for early detection screening for people at high risk of developing lung cancer and raise funding for research. The work has been rewarding and a way for me to give back to the cancer community.

Living Without Fear

I know I’m not the first one to say this, but being close to death changes your perspective on life. When I was first diagnosed with lung cancer, I went through the seven stages of grief and finally landed on acceptance and hope and came out the other side. Of course, I desperately wanted to live, but I was prepared to die and believed my fate was in God’s hands.

I’ve always been a positive person, and this experience with cancer has only made me more determined to live my life without fear. I am more serene now than I was before my diagnosis and have less anxiety about death. Removing the fear of death has made more room for me to live. 

Ms. Glommen lives in The Dalles, Oregon.

Editor’s Note: Columns in the Patient’s Corner are based solely on information The ASCO Post received from patients and should be considered anecdotal.